Stuck in time in 12 step recovery

By Persephone…..

(This piece was sent to me by a member of this blog community, and I think it’s incredibly astute and revealing. As a developmental psychologist, I strongly agree that the recovery process should be viewed as developmental, not static. P.S. It’s apparently no longer be-nice-to-12-step week.)


After I had been clean for what one member counted as 17 months, I finally went back to an NA meeting, only to discover that there is such a thing as being held in stasis in recovery — and that I had, myself, been there. I was acutely aware before, but even more by that point, that for many of my 12 step instructors (for lack of a better word) we were supposed to freeze ourselves in that very moment in which we finally realized that we were “diseased” and had decided to devote ourselves to recovery. We were to cling to that moment in time, reaching backwards instead of forward, into the depths of our misery lest we forget it, developing emotionally only artificially via these 12 steps but otherwise staying rather static in some very crucial ways. So, I watched as roughly 30 people recounted, and with the same stories I had observed over 17 months prior, the worst moments of their addiction. Having not been in a 12 step program since getting clean, but rather in trauma therapy (when I had any therapy at all) as well as restructuring my life on my own based around my new-found loves of self-restraint and goal oriented thinking (not to mention just plain having fun), I could only see in these shares shadows of my past. My very sick past, and one in which I was unable to achieve any kind of “recovery”. I could also see exactly what my therapist always warned as dangerous in terms of staying in the moment and forcing oneself to relive past traumas, though my new and healthy brain had already directed me against this sort of thinking. Very far away from this kind of thinking, so why was this not the case in the most well-known substance abuse venue in the western world?

I understand the 12 step idea of reliving these dark times, and I am aware that this does help some people whose struggle with their own addiction requires constant reminders of how bad their lives get if they use or drink, lest they are tempted to casually or socially (moderate) use or drink. The fact is that this does not help everyone who has struggled with substance abuse, nor is it an idea much found (at least not by me) in other areas of psychology, certainly not in the areas of trauma and abuse. For many, much like the stages of grieving or healing from traumas by emotionally processing them in stages, healing from addiction (and reaching the state of having recovered) requires emotional growth. Change. Realizing that we have made mistakes, and learning from them — while critically gaining self-esteem and the confidence that comes from our own successes in the process. Learning, in a sense, to ride without the training wheels, even if it results in a few scuff ups along the way.

I realized while listening to these shares (over 30) that none of this emotional development had taken place with the members of this particular group. Hopelessness, anxiety, and the common thread that the “disease” was still very present (and quite personified, doing push-ups in the parking lot and lurking around every corner just waiting to flare back into active addiction), even in the relatively normal actions and thoughts these people had experienced that day. They were still experiencing the anxieties and fears I by then had come to associate only with active addiction and very, very early sobriety. Not being trained in psychology but having had my fair share of trauma counseling and the usual smattering of readings about trauma and abuse, I also associated these problems as being almost akin to PTSD, which is almost by definition a state of stasis in which one cannot process or heal from a traumatic experience.

Yet even in my tattered memory, I was acutely aware of what I was taught during my short tenure in NA and the inevitable stint in a 12 step rehab that followed (I say this not to offend adherents to the 12 step method, but to stress that the effect this static-not-developmental treatment had on me was to, well, keep me in my addiction — which for me was synonymous with hopelessness and trauma.). I, and the others, were told that we must essentially live with clipped wings. If we were allowed to ever truly fly, we’d surely be conquered by our own “self-will” and excesses of ego. Anger and hatred (“resentments”, in 12 step parlance) were to be eradicated. How we were supposed to do this without extreme amounts of repression (or a particularly intense spiritual experience) was rather beyond me, and frankly it was my anger that was keeping me going. I consider anger now a useful stage of sorts in my development as a now-recovered person, much like the anger in the often quoted stages of grieving. But no, never in “recovery”. “Resentments” lead to relapse, we were taught. We were to progress only through the steps, despite our various ideological differences with them, but never through normal human emotions. We were all taught that we were faulty, that our brains were faulty from birth, that we were born addicts and must consider our brains to be diseased until the day we died.


Conversely, we were supposed to also ruminate endlessly on our own thoughts (which for me is an excess of ego I don’t prefer to allow!) and stay in the exact same mode of instant gratification that we were in as active addicts and alcoholics (or both). This, in retrospect, is what I find almost the most damaging. There is no emotional development possible, at least not for me, if I’m to still be obsessively thinking about, well, my own obsessive thoughts! Certainly not if my response to a thought I find possibly “diseased” is absolutely and immediately to call my sponsor and then promptly get to a meeting — it’s still instant gratification. This is the same model of living I (and other addicts/alcoholics) had experienced while using and drinking, living from moment to moment with our thoughts focused on getting a substance into our bodies — NOW!! — and getting that instant gratification of a high, a buzz, whatever you choose to call it. In my meetings and rehab, it was still the same, just an instant gratification based on an anxiety-centered thought process. How this would bring me, personally, to “serenity” was rather beyond me. Perhaps the idea was to confuse me to sobriety?

Why not encourage patterns of thinking that don’t simply state that you must get to the serenity point (while remaining in a process in which every thought must be immediately pounced upon and discussed — instant gratification) but instead encourage goal-oriented thinking? I understand that this is hard for the “newcomer” to grasp, but after a few months (at most), introducing at least some ideas beyond the over-arching one of staying in sobriety might be at least somewhat helpful!  Acceptance (“live life on life’s terms”) was also to be implemented immediately, not arrived at by experiencing other basic human emotions relating to our situations, such as anger, not even the bargaining listed in the well known grief list. Of everything, what I view as most valuable is that people must process their emotions, even the ones not deemed acceptable (acceptance!) by the creators of Alcoholics Anonymous. That people must learn, and that they must develop. That sometimes true acceptance is the ability to finally move on and leave behind the stasis caused by endlessly repeating stories of the lowest lows.

I could at that meeting, and now at past the two year mark of getting clean, see quite clearly that the anxiety and obsessive thoughts I was experiencing at the time were a result of the opiates I was addicted to and the fear of withdrawing from them. For me, and no doubt many others (and I have now met a great many others like myself who have recovered — again, past tense), the removal of the substance and consequent healing of the brain were what did the trick. For me, remaining constantly frightened and anxious would have retarded any personal development, but would’ve been reinforced by the 12 step system had I stayed involved with it. And I see that most clearly when I look at my life now as being so different from the many lives still stuck at a static point — a static point in what should be a process of emotional development — or at the very least the foundation for a new beginning.

127 thoughts on “Stuck in time in 12 step recovery

  1. TJ November 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    I think you are full of you own bullshit.

    Thanks for letting me share…

    • Elise November 2, 2012 at 5:16 am #

      TJ, This is a TERRIBLE response. No matter what the memoir is about. I do hope that Marc mediates these types of responses and simply bans mean, insulting feedback. From my perspective, constructive comments (of course even those that disagree, respectfully), support, sympathy, encouragement, reflection, and so on are the only responses to these very personal stories. I am really quite horrified by your response and I hope Persephone has thicker skin than I do…

      • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 9:25 am #

        Elise, thank you, and sadly these kind of responses are all too common when it comes to this subject. Honestly, it just doesn’t bother me anymore–unless directed at other people. I’m at a good place, but have heard far worse and heard it in person–just for leaving NA. And man, is this hard to do on a phone!

        • Marc November 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

          As with Elise, these comments do bother me, and I’m glad, Persephone, that your skin has grown thick enough to deflect them. But I’m letting the comment stay to give people a flavor of the hatred and fear some people feel when their program of choice is found lacking in the eyes of others.

          • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

            Well Marc, the funny thing is that while it doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t bother me because I’ve heard it all so many times as to just be absurd.

            The interesting thing to me is that while I (obviously) have problems with the 12 step approach conceptually as well as for myself as a method, I have no problem with people choosing it for themselves! I don’t hold it against people for finding something that helps them, even if I personally don’t like the method/dogma/etc. Even when they resort to name calling.

            Why is this so rarely reciprocated?

            • SocraticGadfly November 11, 2012 at 12:51 am #

              Persephone, Marc, all others on this list. You’re all invited, for those of you unaware of the options that exist, to step outside the 12-step world. Come visit “secular” sobriety/recovery at a place like Lifering Secular Recovery,

              • Marc November 13, 2012 at 4:03 am #

                Thanks. I think many or most of us lean that way anyway. I checked your site. Great resource!

            • julie January 3, 2019 at 11:53 am #


      • bud michaels April 10, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

        Sounds like an A.A. Marine Corp., defensive types, response.

      • Royce February 15, 2019 at 12:06 am #

        It’s the exact kind of response one should expect from an AA thumper. Any dissent or disagreement with the groupthink must obviously mean that you are in denial or not “being honest” with yourself or not working the program right or any of a million fucking cliches these people cling to.

    • Recovered December 18, 2012 at 3:41 am #

      Thank you TJ for showing me and all the others on here the real aggressive meaning of the “thanks for letting me share”. I remember in my group, how all the aggressive bullies tried to sell themselves as “holy angels” while they were the real problem of the group, while they were the reason that there were so many newcomers not coming back, while they were the reason that there was not real support in the group, except among the bullies themselves.


    • Nick M December 22, 2014 at 10:16 am #

      I actually wish you hadn’t shared.

      Your comment reminded me of being stuck in an elevator with somebody whose passed an incredibly and nauseatingly smelly fart


      • Nick M December 22, 2014 at 10:23 am #

        P.S My comment above regarding really smelly flatulence and verbal diaharea was directed at “the full of your bullshit” contributor.

        Not the article by Persophone.

        ‘Full of your own bullshit” is such a hackneyed cliche in 12 step recovery land. Clearly original and independent thinking is not one of “verbal diarrheas” abilities.and clearly beyond their limited cranial capacity.

    • Tokoriki October 17, 2016 at 5:09 am #

      Nice spritual growth you’ve got going on there TJ.
      Ever heard of “principles before personalities”…?

    • Lynda August 12, 2018 at 7:22 am #

      About nine months ago I left Sex Addicts Anonymous after 25 years because of the hypocrisy of telling members to be rigorously honest when the program itself is “rigorously dishonest” – a problem I have with nearly all 12 step programs. NA being a definite exception. It was started in1977 by a judge and several mental health professionals – nothing wrong with that. One of them is(was) a licensed psychologist who wrote several books on sex addiction. Nothing wrong with that. The serious issue I have is making his books available in meetings when the 8th tradition states they are to remain forever nonprofessional. Isn’t this incorporating professionalism into a “nonprofessional” program? Sounds like a blatant violation to me! It always seemed like a tradition violation, but I could never put a finger on which one until I was sitting in an NA meeting where the topic was tradition 8. I eventually shared snout it.

      Most programs are guilty of violating tradition 7 which states programs are supposed to be fully self supporting declining outside contributions. Instead of building their programs from the ground up using their own literature exclusively, ( like NA) they freeload their books off of Arrogant Assholes, adapting language,and lying to newcomers by telling them it’s the same thing as if it were written about debting or whatever. This doesn’t change anything. All it does is teach newcomers a new way to be dishonest. If dope fiends can build a program ground up than what excuse is there for others(such as Debtors Anonymous) not to follow the NA example? NONE!!!!

      My last pet peeve is that these programs aren’t religious but spiritual, supposedly. Two of the prayers that most use are from the Catholic Church. Not NA! Doesn’t that automatically make them Catholic programs? How could it be otherwise? I’m a devout Coptic Christian, and we use one of those prayers throughout our liturgy, but one of my beliefs is there is a time/place for everything, and spiritual not religious is just not the place. Most of the time I call people on how dishonest the programs really are don’t want to hear it and justify with excuses. Those who listen just can’t argue

    • Anon ex 12 stepper April 22, 2019 at 6:02 am #

      I just want to say thank you for your insightful comment. It was full of facts and opinions in which you arrived by thinking on your own. A true scholar, I wish I was allowed to think as much as you have while attending 12 steps.

    • Shannon L. Freng November 17, 2019 at 8:54 am #

      I drank a copious amount of beer, for 25 years, then stopped, in 2011. I never needed any assistance. There were many who told me that I’d need AA, etc. to aid me. I responded that the day I needed some quasi-religious cult, meant primarily for the illiterate, lower class hypocrite–spouting nothing but inane cliches–would be the day I’d go check into a nuthouse, instead. Most intellectuals worth their salt find 12-step methodology to be a farce; it mostly coming down just a way to make a buck, and Christian proselytism.

      • Joshua Gharis April 20, 2020 at 2:39 pm #

        You sound very very at peace with yourself and the world there. Bless your heart

        • Shannon L. Freng April 20, 2020 at 7:31 pm #

          All one need do is adhere to some code of ethics. And that can be done without resort to some metaphysic. AA is just Calvinist, for the most part, anyway. How come then, has every court that has ruled on it, declared it a religious entity? All that happened was some con artist (Wilson) just copied the Oxford Group–itself merely a progenitor of televangelism. that’s the real reason AA declares it’s not religious.

    • Joshua Gharis April 20, 2020 at 2:38 pm #

      It is my understanding that the essence of AA recovery is getting out of ego or self. Many times throughout the AA Big Book it talks of turning our thoughts towards helping our fellows, or how one can be useful. This is the goal. Focused on myself, all my issues and feelings become unreasonably magnified. When I Trust a power greater, clean house AND seek to be useful/help others….I am at peace with myself and the world. Dont get me wrong, I’m not perfect and am utterly human, however I can make amends (change, not an apology) and continue improving (making perhaps new and different mistakes).
      Whatever works for you though. I just wanted to share my experience with AA, the program not the people. Not everyone in AA fully understands that goal isnt for oneself to have a great life (though it does happen) it’s to allow oneself to become a vessel to be productive, useful and able to help others get better.

  2. Persephone November 1, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    No, thank you for the input! I just wish you had been a bit more specific, or at least elaborated more.

    • Nick M December 22, 2014 at 10:29 am #

      Persophone your praising somebody who passes really smelly flatulance through their mouth, Its quite something to master but beyond save your nostrils.

      I think the contributors name in question is “Fart Talk Bad Breath”. Pretty much says it all about them.

  3. sonny November 1, 2012 at 6:02 pm #


    How refreshing! Thank you. You’re not alone (and neither am I).

    Of course I already knew that. I find SOS meetings great.

    Write on,

  4. Carolyn Kay November 2, 2012 at 4:52 am #

    I never looked on the story telling in AA as wallowing in misery, I saw it as a way to judge how far the story teller had come.

    Twelve-step programs are about reminding ourselves about the progress we’ve made.

    • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 7:57 am #

      Carolyn, I think that is the intent, in part. It’s not always the practice. Depending on where you live, also, meetings can be either constructive and a bit more cheerful or exercises in misery. I (though this is a topic for another time and place) think a person’s past experiences and background color how this is viewed. For people who have suffered from trauma or abuse (or both) for example, constant reminders of past failings aren’t generally seen as stepping stones (pun intended) to success in the present, but as reinforcement of something terrible they experienced. Since many experience trauma through active addiction/drinking, just as an experience, this can become a depressing exercise in being stuck in the problem, just with a new set of rules.

      I might add, incidentally, that at this meeting, no one cared how far I had come. At all. Especially since I’d done it all without 12 step meetings. I was reminded by just about everyone about how bad off I had been. Any small talk of how I was doing at the time was hedged with a reminder of how sick I had been. Well, I had! I’d had a nerve injury and was on seizure meds–problems that went beyond the opiate addiction and ones I didn’t want to have to lay out in detail. Perhaps it would be different at the meetings you attend, but none I’ve ever been to have had this more positive spin.

      • Carolyn Kay November 3, 2012 at 6:03 am #

        That’s why they tell us to take what we want and leave the rest.

        At the first meeting I went to in the city where I now live, a man who was at the time 15 years sober criticized someone who said he had just found out after a year of sobriety that he had a codependency disease, in addition to his alcoholism, and was lamenting that he had another whole healing process to go through.

        The criticizer said that he didn’t bother with all that other stuff, he just put the cork in the bottle. Later in his talk, he said that he had a daughter who wouldn’t speak to him still, after all those years of sobriety.

        He never made the connection between his “just putting the cork in the bottle” and his daughter’s refusal to speak to him, and he probably never will.

        I decided not to take anything that man had to say, but there were others who did inspire me.

        • Persephone November 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

          Carolyn, my experience in AA/NA ended with two stints in an AA based rehab in which you couldn’t take what you wanted while leaving the rest without facing considerable emotional abuse, unfortunately. The few meetings I attended after leaving rehab were just light versions of the concepts we were not allowed to just “leave”. I saw a few people abused so heavily (emotionally, but using AA concepts/redefinitions of concepts) that they lost hope and committed suicide.

          I know plenty who could take what they wanted, even atheists, and used AA accordingly to get sober. I’m still friends with many of them. But seeing the flip side of that coin, the toll it took on people, it can’t just be swept under the rug in my opinion.

          Do you mean that this person you mention didn’t develop or do the step-work, simply stopped drinking (in other words, became a “dry drunk”) and that’s where his problems lay?

          • Carolyn Kay November 4, 2012 at 5:09 am #

            He certainly sounded like a dry drunk, though I can’t, of course, say for sure.

            I did attend one AA meeting that was run by a tyrant who had a God complex, and she had some slavish followers, but that kind of dynamic can happen anywhere. I think it’s going a bit far to blame 12-step programs for the existence of power hungry psychopaths.

            These boot camps for misbehaving kids sound similar to what you went through. And boot camp seems to be the model for the Biggest Loser series, which I also find offensive.

            Let’s concentrate on helping people develop a sense of self strong enough to recognize when someone is trying to manipulate them and run as far and as fast as they can.

            • Marc November 13, 2012 at 4:11 am #

              Hi Carolyn. Do you remember an old Dylan/The Band song, The Night they Drove old Dixie Down:

              “You take what you need and you leave the rest
              But they should NEVER have taken the very best…..”

              But that’s just an old tune playing in my head.

              The philosophy of “take what you need and leave the rest” is pretty much golden in my book. It works for any form of psychotherapy, most forms of education, and (dare I say?) marriage.

              So I’m not surprised that it words for AA/NA programs. GOOD ADVICE!

          • lisa November 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

            I totally agree with you, AA can be abusive, Ive had it happen to me. I puffed a dube, told my sponsor at the time, here it was my friends 1 year madallion btw I was chairing. My sponsor flipped her lid when I didnt get up to get a chip infront of 200 people. Many were not happy with her needless to say. After 10 years in AA, yes I learned alot, I also got stuck living in the rooms, listening to story after story of how unmanagable life had become. I will never forget my drunks and highs, staying inthe guilt and promoting victim hood is hardly recovery, not the recovery I want. AA can keep people sick if one is not careful who they are surrounding themselves with. When I left AA to work my recovery with a trusted therapist, I didnt even get a phone call from any AA members. I love how they say if you want help. pick up the phone, When I know a friend is not well, I will call her cause I know its the right thing to do.

            • Marc November 13, 2012 at 4:17 am #

              What a sad story that is! I hope that the experiences you folks are reporting are not typical. They don’t seem to jibe with my ONE visit to NA in England (recent post). But I have no idea, and I’m hearing a LOT of these negative stories….really a lot.

              Peter’s comment (below) is so helpful, so balanced. But the negative stats I get from readers are hard to ignore.

              I once used to think that the really good things in the world attracted a proportional share of bad. Some sort of weird magnetism or cosmic balance. Like all the phony gurus who shot up when the meditation movement got going in the 70s/80s. I wonder if a similar principle can apply to treatment philosophies…

              • Carolyn Kay November 13, 2012 at 5:33 am #

                There are a lot of people who feed on the weaknesses of others. They gravitate toward the weak, wherever they see them.

                That’s why I say we need to encourage people to take charge of their own lives and stop thinking that some guru is going to do all the work of changing for them.

                As Sheldon Kopp advised us, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

            • Recovered December 18, 2012 at 5:02 am #

              same happened to me …. noone calling … a real support-group … I know now that it was the best decision of my life to leave a meeting and never go back … I did not have a single temptation ever since I have left!!!!

            • Alicia December 23, 2017 at 10:38 pm #

              I left AA after 5 years because I thought it was pretty sick to recover from a life revolving around daily drinking you switched to a life of talking about how life improved so much because you put the bottle down. Either way, your life was committed to the obsession of alcohol and every activity you were involved in was still centered around alcohol which gave it power over my life even though I hadn’t touched it in 5 years. I even played in a sober softball league. They couldn’t just call it softball and they couldn’t play against any team that wasn’t solely AA members, When I quit going, the 30 or so friends I spent all my free time with the 5 years prior who I had devoted a lot of time serving didn’t call me either. I could have been in a coma from an accident and unable to contact them for all they knew, but I know they assumed I relapsed and felt even calling to see how I was would jeopardize their sobriety so fuck me if I needed support but was physically unable to ask for it. Taught me that they were lying about how important I was to all of them.

              • Ruth B August 13, 2018 at 4:25 pm #

                I was so vulnerable when I came to AA due to trauma that the term “take what you want and leave the rest” did not work for me. I simply believed everything that was said because I so wanted my life to change. People made it out to me that AA would help me with the trauma I had been through when in actuality I went from being a top performing graduate student when I first got to AA to being completely disabled and unable to work in about 8 years. This idea that AA can help you with all of your problems simply kept me from really working on my trauma to the point of total and complete breakdown. I also had an abusive sponsor and met men in AA who I ended up in domestic violence with. There was sexual abuse involved and my cats were also severely abused. Today, after recovering from my trauma for over three years, I do not believe that anyone as vulnerable as I was should be involved with a 12 step program. I got coerced and manipulated by so many people so easily and believed the promises to the extent that I was basically unaware of the reality around me. I lost who I was, all emotion, and all sense of truth. I have talked to at least a hundred trauma survivors who have had the same experiences in 12 step programs and for those who had as severe of trauma as me, their stories follow mine. I am aware that there are thousands, if not more, who are in the same boat as me when it comes to this reaction to 12 step methodology and ideology. The truth is too that there are predators in AA who are easily able to spot those who are like me. There are many ways outside of 12 step programs that will help a person stay sober, work through trauma, recovering from growing up in an alcoholic family, or do anything else that 12 step programs help with or claim to help with. I think that rehab programs, counselors, and the recovery community need to recognize that 12 step programs can be very harmful to some and that other methods of staying sober should be reviewed. Also, I got pulled into AA in a way that I was unable to think clearly about what the best options for me were in terms of recovery or even dealing with life. I believe now that if the rehab center would have sent me to counseling first for a significant amount of time so that I could become stronger in myself and think more independently before I even tried AA that my life would be much different than it is today. And in terms of my drinking or life story that I developed in early recovery: today it really is gone, and I recognize that no story of my life can really touch upon the magnitude of life itself or provide answers to all of the things that have occurred in my life or provide consistent answers to why. I can contemplate why and have some theories, but life, humanity, and even differing types of spirituality are simply too big for me to go to a 12 step program and accurately recount my drinking days. In fact, I really don’t have a consistent timeline or story from that time anyways because I no longer tell myself the same static story like I did for the first 9 1/2 years that I drank. I don’t drink today simply out of fear as to what happened then or even because my life is better today than it was, because it is not. Drinking was just another thing in my life that caused me problems just as so many things in life can cause us pain, or even prove to be life threatening. I don’t see drinking as anything worse than many of the obstacles I have overcome and in actuality is not as big of a deal as many other things in my life. I don’t take the idea that I am an alcoholic or don’t drink as prime importance in my life because many things have made me who I am today. I am much happier now that I am no longer in that state of mind where I am repeating what has happened in my life, whether it be in drinking or sobriety, and can just live life today in a way that I never was able to. The possibilities in life are endless, even for me despite my disabilities. I look back at life as I learn more about it due to things like recovered memories, skills, and having new realizations due to trauma work which help me to have a different perspective on not just my life but on others around me as well. I have compassion and empathy today that I didn’t really start to develop until I ventured off on my own and am able to communicate like everyone else. I rely on myself first and foremost and rely on others in a different way than I ever did. I had to break from 12 step ideology to get where I am at though, and the wholeness and experiences I had to get where I’m at would take a long time for me to describe, especially now that I don’t have concrete stories and timelines as to my life. I now live in a more abstract way and that works for me. To those of you who find life within 12 step programs, that is all the better for you. For those who need a different path to find life and themselves, that’s okay too. Life is more complex than any of this.

      • lisa November 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

        I totally agree it depends on where you live. I have spent 10 years in AA, my recovery for my first 6 years was in a larger city. I have now the past 3 years lived in a small town. It appears the AA here is totally different from a larger city, as far as healthier people go, Im gratefull I got sober i a big city, as these small towns have a tendency to be quite gossipy. I have heard so many AA judging others harshly, leaving me with having not so much trust to open up. I have recently started talking with an addictions therapist, and to my amazement much better results. They say AA is a safe place lol then why do so many men hit on new girls. ?why do so many talk about other buisness, why do so many? o yes cause they are sick people. There is alot about AA that is not safe, I have met hundreds of people in AA, but trust very few. Although 12 step programs do save lives, it is critical to recovery to surround myself with healthy , positive thinkers.

  5. Elise November 2, 2012 at 5:27 am #

    Persephone, I resonate with so much you’ve written. I completely agree that growth and a feeling of moving forward, towards entirely new and fulfilling goals, is so key to many people recovery. And taking baby steps in these new directions, leaving old patterns of thought behind, and feeling those successes (and celebrating them!) is also so important in my view.

    The other HUGE issue you bring up is the role of rumination. Lots and lots of social science evidence exists that shows the very strong link between rumination and depression (especially, but also to other forms of mental health problems and PHYSICAL health problems). You beautifully nail how, after a period of time in the 12-step, you needed to move AWAY from ruminating and move towards more active problem-solving and rethinking your live in completely new (and fun!) ways. Bravo to you! (And thanks for giving me this interesting new perspective on how support groups can both help through warm, supportive empathy while also eventually — potentially, not absolutely — becoming a risky context in which lots of co-rumination among group members can stunt growth and development.

    • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 9:41 am #

      Thanks, and yes, this co-rumination you mention has a tendency to become like a bad high school reunion that never, ever ends. I don’t know how universal this is, but once I shook off this identification as “addict”, my brain just started moving me away from this kind of thinking, which I found very self centered and self defeating, and more naturally towards normal goal oriented (as opposed to instant gratification type) thinking. That’s hard to do when you’re being told to analyze your every thought (through a set and defined lens of being diseased in your brain) and immediately pick up a phone over it all.

      They told me my brain was a “dangerous neighborhood” and I shouldn’t “go there alone”….first of all, that is (to me) emotionally abusive and degrading. It’s also not true, I just had some cleaning up to do (not in the 12 step sense alone).

    • Marc November 13, 2012 at 4:32 am #

      Great point, Elise. But you and Persephone are clearly talking about “co-rumination” — doing it with others.

      Of course rumination can go on in the privacy of one’s own mind. That’s typical in depression, etc, etc.

      But here’s the thing: the difference between using and not using often comes down to how long you end up thinking about it. (I’ve discussed this in the past in relation to “ego fatigue”) Banish the thought in a few seconds, maybe a minute or two, and you’re ok. Keep tossing it over for an hour and you’re lost. I know you know what I mean.

      So where does rumination come in?

      I think that having an internal “ruminative” dialogue is exactly the condition for INCREASING THE DURATION of thoughts about using. You don’t just think about it, your ruminate, you debate it, you argue the pros and cons, you look at the pluses and the minuses and then you go back and do it again, tallying the score. It’s that kind of thinking that goes on and on….and that so often leads to Oh Fuck It — I’m just going to go and do it.

      Maybe the ACT of scoring/using is largely a relief from the meticulous word games we play with ourselves.

      • Rick Hall October 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm #

        You’re right about thinking about using or not using over and over in your mind, Relapse begins way before the actual act of using.

        • Carlton October 19, 2017 at 1:41 am #

          …and an individuals recovery process begins way before the actual
          act of change begins too.

  6. Elizabeth November 2, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Beautifully written, Persephone! So Insightful!

    I completely agree with your emphasis on removing one’s self from rumination and working toward goals that extend beyond the addiction. How will one truly recover if a program constantly promotes the addiction as the most salient aspect of self? We are also artists, parents, friends, teachers, scientists, business executives…you name it. While I see how the support of an understanding community can give someone the will to begin to take care of one’s self, we also must eventually remove ourselves from identifying so strongly with the addiction community. I think that was one reason why I decided to stop going to support groups myself, even though I’m not fully recovered. I never wanted to be dependent on my disorder as part of my identity.

    • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Thanks again, I don’t think there’s enough that can be said on the subject you bring up, of identification as an addict/alcoholic. What have you discovered since you stopped going to meetings, if you don’t mind my asking, in terms of sense of self, moving beyond the “stuck in the moment” aspect, etc.?

      • Elizabeth November 2, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

        I would say that I am starting to move beyond having the most dominant thoughts in my mind surrounding my addictive behaviors. I have more time to think about love and support for others and achieving goals that will help advance my career and contribute to society as a whole. It’s sort of a self-transcendence. While I needed to focus on myself to get out of the acute stages of my disorder, it was not a long-term option. I now can devote time to being a loving partner, family member, and can develop my career. However, I do need to make sure that I save enough energy for myself. It was my neglect for my own feelings and obsessive need to please others and seek their approval that got me into my disorder in the first place. I just need to work on striking a balance :). I think staying with the group would have pushed me more toward self-obsession rather than enabling me to transcend myself as well as appropriately care for myself.

        • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

          Elizabeth, I think you just summed up the entirety of what I was trying to write about much more succinctly and astutely than I could ever have. And, congratulations;)

        • Marc November 2, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

          I agree with Persphone. Elizabeth, you make it palpable and compelling on a very personal level, while at the same time providing a sort of model or framework that many of us can try to follow and benefit from.

  7. JLK November 2, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    Sorry everyone but he’s baaaaack.

    Marc: I think you liked this piece because it confirms certain suspicions you have about what most of you refer to as “12 Step programs”. Insisting on that “tag” alone tells me you don’t understand the program.

    AA as we call it is so much more. Stasis is the LAST thing we teach. DEVELOPMENT is our goal. Stasis by definition gets you nowhere. As I have said a number of times in the past….we are about progressive personality change not stasis as you call it. Otherwise you remain a “dry drunk”. In other words the same old asshole who happens to not drink.

    I feel badly about Persephone’s experiences but since NA is so much smaller than AA it could be that it is just not that effective for narc addicts. As I have also said in past postings there is a meeting for everyone in AA. If one meeting or another has an irritating Bible/Big Book/12 Step ONLY “Pounder” (my term… I find all 3 irritating and confining) you find one more flexible and better suited to what you want to achieve.

    I realize a lot of what I ACTUALLY said was lost in the red haze of battle, but what Persephone said indicates a misunderstanding of the founding (and evolving) principles. 12 Steps are only a START. Personal growth means moving on with the many tools offered by the program. Inflexibility is fine for some…not for me and most of my “Friends of Bill” compatriots.

    Maybe that is why we in the program NEVER call it “12 Step”.

    BTW thanks to TJ for making my answers look positively erudite

    • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

      JLK, I have seen this applied numerous times by members of AA/NA (xA), “Otherwise you remain a “dry drunk”. In other words the same old asshole….”, and while I’m not sure you’re here applying this insulting concept to anyone here who did not get clean/sober the 12 step way, it certainly gets thrown out a lot in that very way. Oddly enough, by a program that claims to encourage personal and emotional development with a focus on not “taking others’ inventories” or holding resentments and the like. When the cards are down, however, the good old “dry drunk” (to quote TJ) bullshit gets tossed into the ring every single time.

      What kind of development does AA exactly teach, and does it go beyond some weird sort of repression, given that when the program is criticized a member always shows up to call recovered non-members such an insulting term (and what gives them the right in the first place)?

      In any case, the tools you mention being offered are conditional. Entirely. They come only with the acceptance of the rest of the program, which insists that members give their will over to some force or being outside of themselves. That they must live a life of atonement and constant self (and group) identification as someone with a progressive and fatal “disease”, when many move quickly past even the point of having cravings–or learn to deal with them in other ways (even other programs). The acceptance and “loving you until you can love yourself” is also conditional. It is revoked once you start questioning the program.

      What does the program do for people who, like myself, found the self/group identification ultimately depressing and a cause of a sense of hopelessness? It’s rather hard to develop emotionally when stunted by anxiety and depression, which meetings can cause. When I initially asked this I was told to read the Big Book or NA Basic Text. Because you know, that helps post-acute withdrawal syndrome combined with having to constantly identify with the lowest point you’ve ever sunk to.

      Furthermore, what about survivors of abuse (and trauma)? How does making lists of one’s “character defects” do anything for the development of someone whose self worth and sense of self have been devastated already by lifetimes of emotional abuse? Or doesn’t that simply cause more stagnation, keeping them in the state they were in (that likely was a factor in their addiction/alcoholism in the 1st place)? Even worse, what further devastation is caused by telling these people to “look for their part in it”? I’ve run this by a few trauma therapists who think this is a remarkably bad idea for most abuse/trauma victims. (Here’s a remarkable example of how this sometimes works in AA:, by the way.)

      So, what are these tools and how do they help someone develop?

      • Della March 26, 2019 at 5:35 pm #

        I realize this was from 7 years ago, but I felt compelled to comment about your last paragraph. I absolutely agree.

        I can’t use the words “character defects”, because it’s shaming language. Someone I know calls them “character defaults”, which I find much more helpful. It’s framing it as “These are the behaviors I fall back on when I’m freaked out”, basically.

        But when I and my friend have shared this at meetings? Oo, those condemning looks come a’flyin’.

        And I’ve had people, too, ask me “What’s your part in it?”, when I spoke about another’s harmful behavior. I had no part in them behaving badly, period. The only thing I own is not speaking up and saying “No. This isn’t ok”. In other words, my only amends was to me.

        There is also the issue of a trauma survivor doing a 4th and 5th step. All of my resentments were towards people who had been abusive, particularly my parents. But bringing all of that up, a lifetime of abusive cycles, all at once? I completely shut down for a year afterwards, and began having intense flashbacks.

        I told a friend of mine that I believed that trauma survivors need to be in therapy, before approaching a 4th and 5th step, and perhaps taking it slowly would be better than doing the whole thing at once. I was surprised that she said “I don’t know, I’d have to think about that. It’s not how the program outlines it”.

        And I remember another woman in a meeting, who shared about how she’d spoken with her therapist about all the panic attacks she’d been having, working on her 4th step. Her therapist said “No wonder. You’re bringing up all this trauma at once. How about you work on it slowly?”

        The condemning looks she got at this was a usually progressive and open meeting? I never saw her again, and I don’t blame her.

        We have more tools these days. And yet I’ve found so much resistance to them in AA. I’m getting a lot more out of Al-Anon these days, specifically because their focus is on the individual as a whole – ways of being that AA says to do, but I’ve rarely seen practiced. It takes a lot of searching to find people that understand that recovery is individual, and trying to make people fit into a box with fear is counter-productive. Isn’t the goal to be free?

        Thanks for being rigorously honest here. I appreciate it.

    • Marc November 2, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

      JLK, indeed TJ has surpassed you in belligerence, so congratulations on that one. And your intro, “he’s baaaaack” made me laugh. I hope you don’t mind if I embellish it a bit:

      Here’s Johnny!

      I won’t get into the present debate content-wise. Persephone can certainly take care of herself and argue her case forcefully and elegantly.

      My beef is the following: Why do you insist that she and others “don’t understand” the program. Now it’s possible that AA is in a different class than NA, because of greater resources, more meetings to choose from, a longer history, etc. But it’s also possible that BOTH NA and AA have great potential disadvantages as well as potential advantages. It seems to me that your insisting that “it isn’t so” is playing into her hands, because it furthers the impression of a very single-minded and self-righteous attitude.

      I just don’t see how you can read something as erudite, crisp, and thoughtful, and also deeply insightful as her post and come to the conclusion that she “doesn’t understand”. I think it’s more likely that she is describing something real, and potentially destructive, that you and your group-mates either have not experienced (perhaps due to luck) or else have chosen to ignore.

      • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

        Thank you Marc, I do understand the program, as do many I’ve met who left (some after many years). I also was probably a bit unclear, but I did also attend AA on occasion and my rehab experience was entirely AA based–and long and drawn out. In either case, the focus as well as the problems were the same, and I’m obviously not the only person to have felt the way I did; the comments here are amazing, I am really just floored by all of this.

        Which is why I speak out in the first place, look at how many other people comment here who also left and also recovered! When I left it was to people assuring me I’d be back (after relapsing), dead, jailed, institutionalized, etc.–and saying I’d end up a “dry drunk”!! Well, I didn’t, and neither did quite a few people commenting here, not to mention you as well! I figured I was a fluke of nature or some recovery heretic when I left who’d survived on accident (many of my friends weren’t so lucky). It wasn’t horrible, but I would’ve loved to have been able to read comments like the ones on this thread from people who are sharing hope (and success) and not just doom, gloom and lifetime sentences!

        • Arlene November 4, 2012 at 3:27 am #

          Add me to your list of supporters, Persephone. I’ve been lurking on this blog for a few months, and I’ve just contributed my story to Marc’s new story page, which I hope he’ll publish soon.

          I love how you say you felt like a fluke of nature when you left AA. Me too! I tried it and retried it a dozen times over my two decades of binge drinking, but it never stuck. Despite the fact that I tried dozens of different meetings in different cities and even different countries, I never felt as if I fit. I couldn’t bring myself to believe in god or the twelve steps, no matter how hard I tried.

          I finally got sober once and for all in early 2009 when I surrendered, not to god, but to booze, and I began examining more deeply what I’d always suspected — that addiction is a neurological imbalance, a combination of childhood experiences and brain wiring and chemistry. This blog and website was like the proverbial breath of fresh air for me when I discovered it this past summer.

          I don’t in any way wish to diminish the experiences of those who find recovery in AA or NA. But it’s largely a one-size-fits-all organization, and we’re not all the same size.

          • Marc November 4, 2012 at 4:46 am #

            Hi Arlene, You are certainly sharing an experience that many others have also had. A few weeks ago, we were talking about diversity in recovery in a more comprehensive way. Now it’s sort of devolved to AA/NA puritanism against the world.

            I’d probably want to come down and say “enough already!” But there are so many, buried in the woodwork, who like you are discovering a necessary voice — a voice to stand up and challenge an organization that once told you it knows all the answers and you don’t know any.

            So….carry on, get it out. And yes, I’ll get to your memoir right away.

          • Persephone November 4, 2012 at 9:50 am #

            Arlene, thank you, and I look forward to reading your story. I felt the same way when, after about a year clean, I finally discovered an online community (now defunct) of people who had left. Breath of fresh air.

            That was the only reason, other than perhaps for a sense of closure, that I went to the NA meeting I reference in this piece. To be there as an example to the newcomers of someone who did it another way. I didn’t argue with anyone else there, nor denigrate their participation in that program, I had no interest in challenging their views. But there are very few other ways to get a message (offline) to others that doing this another way doesn’t always mean “jails, institutions or death”!

            I’m glad you found your way.

      • JLK November 3, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

        Hi Marc

        You say you won’t get into the argument but there you are. But I will answer you as it does not accuse me of everything from megalomania to schizophrenia. Not sure why giving an opinion constitutes those disorders but what the hell.

        I know why you are protecting Persephone (who can take care of herself). It is because it dovetails with your opinion of “12 Step” programs.

        The reason I say calling AA (at least) “12 Step” is a misnomer and an indicator of a fundamental misunderstanding of the program is that the “12 Steps” are only the beginning. They are used for new people usually in a one-on-one method between newbys and their elected “Sponsors”.

        Once you have a few years (and I mean at least 2 maybe more) then you can branch out through the program and make it into whatever works best for you. I know very few, of the hundreds of people I have met that have those few years, that still use the Twelve by Twelve as the be-all-end-all for recovery.

        The difference between my opinion and the rest (it would seem) besides being based on 10 years experience, is that I believe that human nature needs constant reinforcement when there is a lurking disorder of the brain that is just waiting to reappear and you cannot deny that rationalization (just one won’t hurt) is part of basic human nature . So what happens if you are sober for 12 years and you find yourself in just the wrong spot at the wrong time, wring mood and a stressful period in your life? You need support to keep from returning to what got you there in the first place even if you have 10,20 or even 30 years of sobriety. Only AA (as far as I know) as an INSTITUTION and not a self-help program can help with that. It is cheap (or free if necessary and affordable for any under any financial circumstances. So the “price of entry” as we say in Econ, is very low and always available.

        One caveat I did not mention: if you live in a small town the options are limited. If you only have a couple different meetings from which to choose and they are both irritating then another route may be in order.

        If you can use other methods fine with me as long as they are LIFETIME methods. Otherwise you are at risk.

        The term “Dry Drunk” also is misunderstood by your group. Seemingly a “hot button” for some it ONLY refers to those who quit without some kind of foundation for personality change (stasis as you call it).

        I am sorry that the way I express my beliefs have been interpreted by many as “megalomania” or whatever, I don’t get it. Just because my belief set is different than yours does not mean I am some kind of nutcase. (I am a nutcase but my disorder is unrelated to all the things I am accused of). Is it the tone of my remarks? Do I sound like some crazy that is standing on the street with an “End of the World is Coming Repent Now” bill board slung over my shoulders?

        I am still in the dark about that and have received ZERO enlightenment. Just hurled, sometimes over-the-top invective. That is not very enlightening and only serves to reinforce my beliefs…I assume the opposite of your intention.
        Or possibly among any Narcissists or the like in the group a projection of your own fears and personality disorder(s).

        PS At one point Marc you said using the term “believe” or the some such reeks of lack of conviction. But it would seem if I don’t use it I am a “Megalomaniac”, Proselytizer or whatever. I believed that it just shows that is MY belief and demonstrating that anyone else is entitled to theirs.

        • Persephone November 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

          To be brief, JLK, your hypothesis about those future potential weak moments demands a belief that there is a brain disorder still lurking somewhere in your head. Or “doing push-ups in the parking lot”….lol. I don’t buy this idea, not for a minute. Nor is there a reliance with me on something outside of myself, I’m accountable to me, but that’s neither here nor there for now.

          If I have a weak moment in the future, why would that make me use and what would going to any 12 step meeting (sorry, but if they get to redefine concepts and play with language so freely, I feel I have the same right, no offense intended) do for me except tell me to surrender my will? To admit to defeat? Would they tell me to rally my strength and fight on? They never have before, and that’s how I personally operate. I know many who this WOULD be helpful for, and many who have returned….but for those who can’t function according to the AA worldview, what would this option you propose serve?

          I don’t think you seem keen to answer my other previous questions, so I’ll just leave it at that.

          • JLK November 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

            Hi Pers

            None of the above applies to my experience…we are not robots marching to a rigid ideology if that answers your questions above. It is just a matter of picking and choosing the best way for you. The only weakness i see in my arguments is in the last post to Marc….that is small towns where the choices are few. You seem to have a hostility to AA that leads to comparing it to Scientology or some other brain washing cult.

            But if you live in a city the size of mine we have 450 separate meetings/week to choose from. I go once a week now because I found a meeting I really like. It contains people from all walks, races etc. And I love hearing from people (like our newest member who got out of prison last month after doing a 16 year stretch) that have had life experiences so different from mine.

            So AA can even serve a (psychological/sociological study?).I am also a “senior member” so I chair the meetings a lot and am able to steer the topics into fresh directions….away from SOS Big Book stuff.

            Please specify the “question” you asked again and I will answer that one as best I can. Sorry I missed it.

            • Persephone November 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

              JLK, not to put you on the spot, but that really just dodged my questions. You have a lot of experience in the program, so I had hoped you could answer from an AA perspective what I had brought up regarding, well, I needn’t retype it, it’s all in my first reply to you.

              The brainwashing was actually addressed at my AA based rehab, oddly enough, and the “joke” was that “some people’s brains need a good washing”. It’s rather widely acknowledged by a great many in AA that the program is frequently criticized as being cult-like–many members have written online defending against that claim and I’ve seen efforts in meetings and rehabs both to convince newcomers that it’s not “a cult”, so this cannot be news to you, as a longstanding member. If it is, I’d hate to see your reaction to sites like The Orange Papers.

              I get your point, and live in a city of considerable size in which there are up to 100 meetings per day. Which leads back to my original reply to you. What meeting can one find to suit them if the entire premise is, well, offensive to their values? For example, reinforcing a negative sense of self for abuse victims, insistence upon ceding control to a “higher power”, saying Christian prayers, etc., aside from what I’ve already written about the keeping someone stuck in the moment? Where are THESE people supposed to get help in a world (at least in the U.S.) where every substance abuse service bar about 5 are centered around this dogma?

        • Persephone November 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

          Just to add also, I do not misunderstand the term “dry drunk”, but have seen it used (misused?) as an insult so many times against people who refused to go AA/NA that it is now on par (semantically) with a slur. It is a very loaded term when discussing this subject. Just so you are aware of MY understanding (not misunderstanding) and internalization of the term.

        • Marc November 3, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

          John, You say you get ZERO enlightenment to offset your ongoing confusion? Try this:

          1. I do not “protect” Persephone. The fact that I agree with some of her points does not mean I “protect ” her. Where the hell did you get that idea? As I said very clearly, she does a fine job of taking care of herself.

          2. It is not “my group” that misunderstands some of your points. I did not construct this group. it’s just a group of thoughtful people who want to discuss the experience and the science of addiction!

          3. *I* don’t call it stasis. That was Persephone’s point! I’m not some master manipulator that puts words in the mouths (keyboards) of participants. So your argument isn’t with me. It’s with a LOT of others, many of whom HAVE had ample experience with AA/12-step/NA!

          4. If you are perceived as a megalomaniacal nutcase, dont’ blame me! Everyone comes to their own conclusion/interpretation. I actually think you’re rather sane, despite your, um, style of argumentation. So wake up and smell the coffee! If a lot of other people are perceiving you in a certain way, then maybe, just maybe, you are coming off in a certain way!

          5. My “own fears and personality disorders” are amply conveyed in my book. Nothing hidden there. But I don’t think you get me at all if you think that I *fear* an effective AA campaign. That’s just not my thing. I’m into brains, not programs!

          I hope that raises your enlightenment quotient above ZERO!!!!


    • Alicia December 23, 2017 at 11:01 pm #

      If 12 steps are just the beginning of personal development, why do Old Timers always say that once you complete the 12th step, you start over with the first step and many have worked the steps over and over for decades as recovering alcoholics but never develop enough in AA to fully recover and live a life that doesn’t center around an obsession of not drinking alcohol, essentially spending decades daily in the rooms as obsessed with their perceived powerlessness over alcohol as they were when they were actively drinking? Decades after their last drink and still introducing themselves as an alcoholic every time they share how wonderful their life is in recovery from alcohol addiction. You want me to blow your mind and give you some cognitive dissonance? I am fully recovered from alcoholism and it was not a self inflicted disease of self will run riot, but my way of self medicating PTSD from a life time of covert emotional abuse. Once I recognized I was severely abused, removed myself from my abusive family and started rewiring the neural pathways the trauma created and set personal goals involving the real world, drinking and sobriety became irrelevant and I freed myself from the prison of believing alcoholism takes a lifetime of meetings to recover from which gave me power over something I was brainwashed to believe was more powerful than me.

  8. JHughes November 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Thank you for this post. It resonates strongly with my own experiences in AA, which lasted about 5 years before I decided to “move on” to further personal development.

    I agree that 12-Step programs are an excellent starting point to get people to reach their most basic need – sobriety. It offers the support, sameness and alternative choice for those people stuck in a downward spiral of addiction.

    However I agree with you on the stasis that is reached in the program. It can only go so far as it does not replace the value of seeking professional help in the realm of counselling of trauma work.

    The point about AA meetings replacing the need for instant gratification really hit home for me. That is exactly how I experienced it too. If I called my sponsor and expressed that I was having some form of uncomfortable feeling her immediate response to me was – go to a meeting (i.e. get rid of it! Don’t feel it!). How effective is this when part of my personal and professional life as a counsellor is to learn and teach people how to be able to remain in those uncomfortable places and to grow into our wounds by sitting in the feelings we don’t want to feel, and hence by re-learning our capacity to endure moments we use to run from. Not eradicating the feelings. Growth works by feeling/healing, if I am trying to find quick fixes or analytical solutions (i.e. obsessively obsessing over my own thoughts) then I am essentially avoiding the problem.

    The desire to not feel those uncomfortable feelings is often what triggers an addict to use. Should a recovery program then merely replace one addiction with another (go to a meeting, do a 4-step, get out of your feelings) or perhaps it should help to teach us to endure these feelings with a capacity that we hadn’t yet discovered.

    Growing up requires the ability to feel our way through life. Grief is a skill not a feeling, when we reach out for anything in place of having our feelings we are just repeating old patterns. Yes, reach out for support, let someone be there for you as you grieve your loss or trauma. Don’t run away from it, even if that direction was given to you by a sponsor. The only way to deal with the pain is to feel it.


    • Persephone November 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      JHughes, I agree (well, obviously), and that’s another aspect of what I was taught, what I referred to as the riding the bike without the training wheels. In my 12 step experience, I was taught that I was mentally incapable of handling the scuff ups or small crashes. That they would lead to immediate relapse. But as you say, I needed to have them (and never relapsed), and needed to feel the pain and everything else as well. It taught me to, as you say, stop repeating the old patterns by learning new ones from experience.

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed what I had to say.

    • Marc November 4, 2012 at 6:05 am #

      Yes, the urge to circumvent, escape, bypass…the negative emotion…is so…primal! And it is indeed the very same urge that gets us using substances in the first place. I mean, what could be more effective than a hit of something or a bowl of icecream or a martini or an orgasm to change your feeling state FAST?

      Yet….just enduring the negative state is fundamentally important. Tell yourself: I’m just going to sit with this for a bit… will resolve itself in a little while…I don’t have to DO anything to get rid of it. Putting your own arm, or someone else’s arm, around your shoulder at such times really can help, as you say.

      And an hour later you’re a slightly better, slightly stronger person.

      • Persephone November 4, 2012 at 10:03 am #

        Given the endless articles about (usually) celebrities who were addicted to drugs and/or alcohol ending up finding much of their salvation in exercise (not “exercise addiction”!), I tend to think that perhaps those who end up addicts/alcoholics are frequently people who just don’t process stress well. Traumatic experiences aside (as factors), it seems that exercise finally helps that processing of stress as opposed to dulling it out. It also helps, at least in my case, when I have to sort out those moments of mental pain. Maybe it is still a “quick fix” for me, but I certainly don’t ignore or dull this stuff out, I just work it out while working out.

        That was a bit off topic, but I thought I’d mention it.

        • JHughes November 4, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

          I think exercise can be a much healthier alternative to other ways of dealing with stress. For example going for a run vs having a cigarette! I think there are times when we certainly can be proactive in taking care of ourselves when we are experiencing mental anguish/pain. So as far as tactics go I’d say exercise is all encompassing as part of self-care and supporting oneself. There is a distinct difference between running away from our feelings and processing them through exercise, yoga, mediation, a walk in the woods or a conversation with someone we can feel supported by…

          • Persephone November 4, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

            Oh, well yes, it is definitely healthier, I just also think some people were just not built for this more sedentary version of life as many alive experience it. It’s not just emotional pain, it’s stresses that we have to process while doing other stressful things such as sitting still at (many of our) jobs, driving, getting through school, etc. Those stresses have to go somewhere, yet people act amazed that people turn to drugs (even just pharmaceuticals non-addictively). These days, at least where I live, you have to find and make time to even get physical activity into your days.

            I guess my point is just that exercise is normal for the human condition, being sedentary is really not, and those who can’t handle that perhaps are more prone to turning to a substance, even without addiction as a factor.

    • crystal November 17, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      Thank you for your post, Persephone. I haven’t entirely sorted out how I feel about the 12 steps. I had a son who struggled with addiction. It pretty much started around 9th grade soon after the trauma of his father’s death to a heroin overdose. He thought he would never do heroin, but he did, and eventually died of an overdose just 2 weeks after finishing a 12 step based rehab. I didn’t question the 12 steps until long after my son’s death, and starting down my own road of recovery.

      About 8 months after my son’s death, I was hospitalized for a long standing battle with bulimia. I know it is not the same as drug or alcohol addiction, but it similar to “using” ….. a behavior that will ease the pain. They don’t usually treat people with eating disorders with the 12 steps. They teach mindfulness, the Budhist (sp?) Philosophy of staying present in the moment. Like what JHughes said, that we need to learn how to handle, live through, manage, and sometime sit with the pain.

      I have been practicing this both in dealing with my grief…the loss of my son…a pain that seemed it would envelop me forever and kill me or leave me a zombie, a walking dead person defined as a mother who tragically lost her son. And I have also been practicing mindfulness for dealing with my eating disorder. Much like any addict there have been times the emotional pain of loss was so bad that I would have loved to ride the opium wave myself, to escape my pain, and even to meet my son on the other side.

      However, mindfulness is helping me through this, because the whole point is to be empowered, to feel the feelings, cry the tears when necessary, but to hang on to life as a gift.

      I agree that 12 step groups feed an all or nothing mentality. I was taught by my ED counselors, that it is not all or nothing. It is progress.

      Persephone’s point about focusing on goals and life is good, and motivating. I would have to say, though, that there are times where it is appropriate to just rest and recuperate. I did that with my grief,sort of like hibernating, and not knowing how my future would work, or would be without my son. But after a time of about 2 years, now I feel ready and eager to get involved in life again. I actually now want to work in the recovery field, so I am very interested to hear experiences of how different types of recovery programs work or don’t work.

      I don’t know if the 12 steps would have helped my son, had he lived. Step 1 was good: after a couple of years of misery, couch surfing, and living in Golden Gate park on hippie hill, he finally called me one day after a dog shit on him in his sleep and “admitted he had a problem” and was ready to go to rehab.

      It didn’t work for him. He experienced some pretty bad blows in rehad. And as Persephane pointed out, I feel that with the black and white thinking of AA/NA once he used again, I do think he lost hope. He was to a point where he finally wanted to recover. He was enjoying being clearheaded, able to think. And he thought through many relationships and aspecks of his life, but yes, I think the initial relapse he took as “there’s no hope for me.” I will never know whether his death was an accidental overdose, or an act of suicidal desperation.


      • Persephone November 29, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

        Crystal, your comment is so staggering that I’ve barely been able to respond. I am so sorry about your son. I cannot imagine working through that kind of pain. There’s enough pain in this world already without addiction/recovery adding in wounds, but to lose a child….

        It’s interesting how you contrast your ED counselors and program with your son’s experience. I saw the black and white thinking as well in my experience, and hadn’t much read or studied how the ED (er, I should specify that as eating disorders) recovery community operated. I can see what you’re saying; anything to dull out the pain and not keep it present, even though we know it’s not a good idea. I think it’s a normal response, as has been discussed here. You had a lot of pain to want to dull out, more than most, I’m sure.

        Great that the mindfulness is working for you, I’ve heard that mentioned in addiction circles as well, and it’s amazing that you want to work in the field now. Stay well, and I wish you the very best.

      • Marc December 12, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

        Crystal, I’m sorry for replying so late. As Persephone says, your story is staggering. It is so painful that it makes me want to retreat and pull down blinders even as I read it. I have no words of wisdom or anything else to impart. Just by chance, tonight I watched a horrendous news report/video on a drug called krokodil, which seems to be killing a lot of heroin users in Russia these days.

        I sometimes see addiction as a value-neutral pathway that leads people in many different directions, and other times I see it as pure evil. Maybe it’s useful to see addiction as creating a more and more fragile world until it gets resolved either by recovery or by death.

        Whether your son committed suicide or whether his OD was an accident….the truth might be somewhere between these poles. The one time I seriously OD’ed and was thought to be dead, I was not killing myself intentionally, but I was intentionally avoiding taking care of myself.. There is a difference.

        Your endurance can serve as an amazing lesson to others. Thanks for sharing your story.

  9. Megan November 2, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    I had a hard time accepting the terms of NA as well. I live in a small community so regardless of what meeting I went to I saw the same faces. I went religiously for the first 3 months sober. I labeled myself as an addict…and was almost proud to accepy my damaged brain. After a year clean I started having some personal struggles. I looked for the instant gratification and safety of my sponsor and a meeting…but something didn’t feel right. I felt like I was living a charade. I told the people I needed guidance and felt weak…then I walked out of the meeting and got high. I began my sobriety again with NA. Around that time I started seeing a behavioral therapist and took my recovery in a new direction. I stopped wallowing and started changing. I’m not an addict anymore.
    I’m a human being that made some bad decisions.

    • Marc November 4, 2012 at 6:11 am #

      Wow, Bravo! Your story fits so well with the lesson Persephone is trying to get across. I’m very moved by these accounts. Please consider the “Guest Memoirs” feature.

  10. causeandeffect November 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    Thank you, Persephone, for such a well thought out piece. Stasis is exactly what I found in AA, in the idea that I would always suffer from an incurable, progressive, fatal disease. While I had thoroughly learned my lesson that drinking was something I never wanted to do again, I was told I would have to constantly, for the rest of my life, grapple with a compulsion that, quite frankly was gone. Once enough time had passed since my last drink, I simply had no desire to ever drink again. Yet I heard old timers talk about how many hours it would be until they had completed another 24 hours of sobriety. The thought of it was frightening and depressing. But another form of stasis I found in AA was in dealing with “defects of character.” It seems to me a that the magical thinking that God was going to remove these kinds of defects in exchange for performing the rituals of the steps, rather than dealing with them head on in any rational way, was a form of avoidance that kept people in their problems for decades. I could see that the old timers had made very little progress in their own lives. And I, like you, found the steps and trite slogans were inadequate to sort out the trauma issues I had that I had previously chosen to drink over. I had to roll up my sleeves and do the actual work with some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

    Another thing that kept me in stasis, but was actually more a form of mental paralysis, was the stereotype of the alcoholic. I found I was unable to move forward in my life until I was able to shake off that belief completely.

    I’m so glad that, through all the research I’ve done, I found so much compelling evidence that the 12 step way was completely unnecessary in order to recover. I’m glad I found other ways, and since having left that world behind, I feel my sobriety is on much more solid grounds. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    • Persephone November 2, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

      causeandeffect, I can see that, that there’s a holding pattern of sorts in constantly trying to identify your own faults and being in a constant state of atonement (of sorts) and asking something outside of yourself to “fix” it. That is definitely static, but disempowering as well.

      I’m glad you found another way as well! I was the same, by the way, my desire to use any drug was just gone. I saw no point in dwelling on it, either, but I was expected to say that it was a constant struggle. That would’ve just been dishonest, which is one thing AA/NA definitely encourages you to not be!

    • Charlie November 4, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

      My head is bobbing up and down here as I nod in agreement. You’ve pointed out two important things here, C&E, that were my experiences exactly. Since March 23, 2009, I have not had a drink, and nor have I had a craving for a drink. I changed my thinking overnight, and the compulsion that had haunted me for decades entirely disappeared.

      Although I attended AA meetings for months after that, I could not wrap my head around so much of the dogma, especially “defects of character.” What a horribly 1950s term! It’s like calling someone mentally retarded — it should be relegated to the waste bin of politically incorrect terms.

      In AA, it seemed they wanted me to dwell in the past, dwell on my “defectiveness,” call myself an alcoholic forever, surrender my will and my life force to god, and be prepared for a lifetime of being in recovery — when all I wanted to do was improve and grow as a human being.

      I am no longer an alcoholic. I am not in recovery, I’m recovered. I have grown as a human being, psychologically working on things like my perfectionistic tendencies that contributed to the alcoholism. Although my thinking about my alcoholism changed overnight, I knew I needed to work on myself to build on that new thinking. Since then, I’ve changed my brain patterns, building and strengthening new neurotransmitter paths. To me, life is now all about growth and change, a concept that isn’t given much credence in AA. Overall, I felt AA meetings everywhere dwelled far too much in the past. Today, I identity myself by what I am right now, not what I was in the past or what I am not and may not ever be.

      Marc, have you written any posts on neuroplasticity? I would be interested to hear your ideas on the topic.

      By the way, I posted earlier as Arlene. I’ve changed my online name here to Charlie, which I’ll use from now on.

      • Marc November 13, 2012 at 6:54 am #

        Hi Charlie,
        I’m now all caught up with you. I just re-read your Guest Memoir. What a fascinating and well-told story, and what a happy ending. But more than that, you have crystallized a connection between two ideas, both of which have been circulating here. One is the idea of individual diversity in recovery. You really did it your own way, and you correctly criticize the one-size-fits all notion. But you also meld this lesson with that of recovery as a developmental process. I love the way you refuse to view yourself in any kind of freeze frame. So, putting these two points together, you show us that “recovery” can be sudden, it can be individual (i.e., unique), but it can also be developmental — a sharp turn on the road of one’s life.

        I also stopped “cold” one day, after many years of really serious self-abuse, also by realizing that I had to stop taking narcotics completely, not just most of the time. A number of people found it hard to believe: quitting without any form of treatment? That’s just not how it’s done, I was told. Well, they were wrong. That’s how I did it and it’s pretty close to how you did it, and there are about 100 other ways to do it. So there.

        Regarding neuroplasticity, I’m just about to write my next post, and it will be the mirror-image accompaniment to Persephone’s excellent post above. I want to show that viewing recovery as developmental isn’t just refreshing, or helpful; it’s also the only way the brain could possibly work. Stay tuned…

      • Marc November 13, 2012 at 6:57 am #

        P.S. Yes, “character defect” — a term left over from the 50s or so. Makes me think about frontal lobotomies. (that would be an appropriate cure!)

        A defect in anything, from a vacuum cleaner to a person’s character, is unlikely to change through a process of development. So….the word has no place in our world.

        • Charlie November 13, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

          The more I think of it, the more this term annoys me. A character defect, to me, is more of a psychopathic or sociopathic or narcissistic trait like lack of empathy, whereas addiction is a function of neurology — brain chemistry. A person can still have an outstanding character, but that character may be hidden because of the addiction. In other words, addiction should not be coupled with a lack of good character traits.

          Somebody really needs to rewrite the Twelve Steps and the Big Book, etc.!

          • Persephone November 16, 2012 at 12:48 am #

            I can’t wait to read your guest memoir, Chariie. I can’t agree more! for starters, the 12 step redefining of language irks me on a level it would be difficult to express briefly. But you bring up the interesting point not only that these expressions tend to lodge in your brain and continue to annoy as well as the problem of asking people to both admit to and examine these usually while still adjusting (psychologically and neurologically) to the substance being removed.

            We are all flawed. Everyone. But as you said, the true character lies within each of us, not with our activities and thoughts while in the throes of addiction. Personally, played to my strengths (what were termed in rehab as “character defects”). I rejected that my anger at the time was a “defect”, that my stubbornness and intense drive were as well, and used them to my advantage. I did shake off their redefinition (based on their presuppositions of the “alcoholic/addict personality) of “character defects”, but they did stick with me for a while in a very annoying way.

            I’m glad you brought that up. We are much more than the sum of our addictive behaviors.

  11. Richard Henry November 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

    Some thirty years back, I found A.A a place to go where I realized I wasn’t alone.

    For, as I grew up and became an alcoholic, it was never mentioned to me by my parents that if I kept up drinking the way I was I would become an “Alcoholic.

    I like to say “Knowing is half the battle” If I had only knew… Would I have still became an alcoholic? probably… But I did find with meetings, that we all shared our experience, strengths and hopes, people won’t make the same mistakes we have made.

    In saying so, it was not the A.A that helped me at the time but the people in it.

    The steps are a very helpful tool in clearing up all the past and starting a new life, but I believe once a person has reach a certain stage in their sobriety A.A is no longer needed for them, but in helping the newcomer.

    Regards Richard
    P.S Always enjoy your post Marc thanks.

    • Marc November 5, 2012 at 5:34 am #

      Thanks, Richard. Your point, that it is not the program per se but the people in it, fits so well with what we keep hearing the last couple of weeks. It sure does ring true with my experience of an NA meeting — the one in the north of England that I posted about 2-3 weeks ago. It wouldn’t have mattered if that group was called NA, Rational Recovery, or DAOS (Dope addicts from outer space). The feeling in the room, of telling and listening and caring about one another — that seemed by far the most “healing” aspect of the meeting.

      Also, you say the steps are most helpful for newcomers, not old-timers. Interesting point. I think JLK said something similar. That might help to untangle some of the confusion about how and when AA/NA type programs can be most useful.

  12. Frank November 3, 2012 at 2:40 am #

    Very briefly, i could not get sober using the 12 steps,like most things in life you only get results when you do the work yourself,coming up on 5 years sober,i’ve grown and my confidence has soared,this has all happened since i walked away from ALL recovery groups not just a/a.

    • Marc November 13, 2012 at 7:00 am #

      That is great to hear! I think the statistics on “spontaneous recovery” — one term for what you just described — would be shocking to many in the addiction community. Depending on where you get your stats, and what substance you’re referring to, estimates range from 20% to 80%.


  13. Nik November 4, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    Thank you Persephone, for all the good points of your original post. This issue of the ‘stuck’ quality that turns up in 12 Step programs and their adherents is crucial. I have not been to AA or NA meetings, but to others, but I have seen lots of persons who say they have 10 or 20 years of AA or NA sobriety–as they undertake new 12 step programs for emerging life difficulties.

    You did not mention this common pattern. When a new problem arises, be it overeating or ‘sexual anorexia’ (compulsive avoidance), or wild sexual acting out, or incurring debt, the person has just one coping model in their repertoire: so a new 12 step group is sought. The odd thing is that these new problems come up for persons who have supposedly conducted a most ‘searching moral inventory,’ and dealt with removal of all main ‘character defects.’ Obviously self discovery is never a finished project and one’s self assessment at 30 years will differ from one’s self assessment at 45 years, but I believe the problem is deeper, and revolves around focus on a particular behavior, and a particular moral prescription for dealing with it and its supposed basis (e.g. ‘self will’).

    The point, I think, is that AA or NA seem to have effectiveness for some, to ‘stop the bleeding’ or bluntly, to save a life, but the ‘map’ as to going further gets kind of vague (the later of the 12 steps) and overly focussed on ‘fellow sufferers’ as opposed to the rest of the human race.

    Life must necessarily involve broader goals besides NOT doing x, or even “Living in Recovery,” though obviously for some, a degree of continuing vigilance is needed, And indeed, for some persons, for some behaviors, total abstinence (depending on the person’s constitution and what ‘works for them’).

    I don’t doubt there are lots of exceptions. JLK says, “Once you have a few years (and I mean at least 2 maybe more) then you can branch out through the program and make it into whatever works best for you.” Yes, but the map is not really there. Some ‘addicts’ will indeed branch out and develop; some find other spiritual programs. Some will find what you call ‘goal oriented’ undertakings. But they a really left to their own devices. “Tools” such as ‘calling a sponsor,’ are not so relevant. The general tools such as praying/meditating and journaling only go so far.

    Simply put, the basis for continued growth is not well specified in the first (2-5) years of the program. For example, overcoming ‘self will’ only can get one so far (i.e., STOP being stubbornly self absorbed, impervious to others’ needs and views, and self destructive). Same for overcoming ‘character defects’. (There is another area for ‘stuckness’, the permanent 12-step equivalent of the Christian “I am a miserable and unworthy sinner humbly asking for Thy grace.”)

    Persephone, I hope you keep sharing your experiences and insights. It’s especially important what you said about meeting attendance. While compulsive attendance of “90 meeting in 90 days” is perhaps warranted in extreme cases where destruction is the alternative, it is, at another level, a compulsion or addiction. Likewise ‘calling a sponsor’ is fine and necessary if it saves one from suicide, but if it’s become, for the ‘love addict’ “I’ve met a new person and I’m not sure how to proceed,” then a new form of dependence has arisen.

    To come back to your basic point: It is not enough to arrive at the point of NOT using, or NOT acting out; a person, to continue to develop him- or herself has to move ahead, undertaking positive things, be they new relationships, writing a book, teaching kids, playing music, watching birds, or exploring the world. New activities help bring new identities besides the old ones like “abuse survivor” or “recovered alcoholic.”

    • Persephone November 4, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

      Nik–that is a very good point. It’s a remarkably small skill set in terms of tools. Especially if you buy into the idea that you are diseased in your brain–for life! I have refused to watch these celebrity rehab shows for the most part, but watched and read a bit online just to know what they were all about, and was amazed at how quickly (at least in the one show) this Dr. Drew decided to diagnose his patients with at least 1-2 other addictions–for which they needed more rehab, more programs, etc.

      I am intrigued by this idea in 12 step programs that you mention that people must be made to stop being self-absorbed, yet the program seems to encourage complete self-absorption. Self obsession, really. And, as I wrote above, what if these changes don’t come naturally to you and you have no adequate guide (sponsors are luck of the draw, frequently, and few have training in psychology) in terms of that emotional growth? I kept hearing “fake it till you make it”, which can for many just equate to repression. Anger isn’t allowed, blaming isn’t allowed (even when it’s deserved), and members who are chastised for their normal emotions are frequently not going to speak up but possibly repress these emotions, which just bubble up later and in other forms. Which, as you say, then require a new “diagnosis” and new spin-off program.

      Like you say, there has to be development to get away from all of the old habits, and following a set script (especially as to the why of addiction/alcoholism) doesn’t cut it for everyone. Not everyone drank or used due to the grandiosity or egotism that Bill W. describes, many were quite the opposite. Being told to keep repeating that it was your self-centered ego based in a defective brain doesn’t exactly help those who never originally fit the narrative, nor does it encourage any kind of emotional development. In my humble opinion.

      • Nik November 4, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

        Hi Persephone.

        Good points!

        I think that your posts and others, such as Elise, Elizabeth, Arlene, JHughes and others make a valuable contribution to the dialogue, both as to causes of the problems as well as the paths to recovery (and possibly ‘treatment’). As you mention it is pretty easy to go into any bookstore and find someone, e.g. a celebrity, touting their ordeal, then triumph: “I Found Life through the 12 Steps.”

        It’s much harder to find, “How I Got Better after Dropping from NA.” **And I don’t think it’s because the latter stories are rare, infrequent or atypical, just not paid attention to or published.**

        I want to add something to one of your statements. This:

        P: “Like you say, there has to be development to get away from all of the old habits, and following a set script (especially as to the why of addiction/alcoholism) doesn’t cut it for everyone. Not everyone drank or used due to the grandiosity or egotism that Bill W. describes, many were quite the opposite. Being told to keep repeating that it was your self-centered ego based in a defective brain doesn’t exactly help those who never originally fit the narrative, nor does it encourage any kind of emotional development. ”

        Yes, I think that’s right. “Self will” is a fairly all inclusive proposal or hypothesis about the origin of human problems and unhappiness that has been advanced by a number of Christians. But leaving aside the theological issue, we can still ask, “is there some special applicability to case of the alcoholic or other addict?”

        There probably is, *in some cases*, as you suggest. It doesn’t seem to fit Marc’s account, at least on the surface.

        Other experts have raised the interesting point that maybe it’s more the problem typical of *male* alcoholics or addicts. Almost all the stories in the Big Book are men’s stories, and this is true in some other 12-step groups’ books that I’ve seen, e.g those to do with ‘sex addiction.’

        That issue of gender, at any rate was made by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, which led to her founding Women for Sobriety. I believe some other women in the addiction field have also stressed the need for building addicted women’s self esteem (which is perhaps a cousin of ‘self will’?) and *decreasing* their sense of guilt. Their approach seems plausible–I have no data. On the other hand, possibly there is no general truth that involves splitting addicts by gender. I don’t know, directly; I have no basis for conclusion. But there are hundreds of women’s groups addressing addiction and ‘bad relationship’ issues. Some different approaches must be working, at least for some.

        The broader point here, as you say, may well be to look at the individual case and history; how he or she got that way, and his or her needs. Then a program has to address, first, the self destroying behavior. Perhaps 12 step programs have a role here for some persons. Second, however is the issue of reorganizing oneself, finding new identity(ies), and shaping personal goals. Here, perhaps, awareness of strengths is as necessary as knowledge of one’s bugbears, the notorious “defects of character” and attempts to address the damage of one’s misdeeds. I might add too, as have some others: a reorganization of one’s way of living may require dealing with some old issues such as abuse and neglect. This is much broader than the issue of figuring out whom *you* may have wronged, and making an ‘amend’ to them. Hence some 12-step persons have engaged therapists as necessary adjuncts to their quest for health.

        There are vast areas to be explored, and, in my opinion, no one person, organization or institution has ‘the truth’ despite any claims of healing thousands or reaching millions.

    • Marc November 13, 2012 at 7:20 am #

      What a great little essay, Nik. I really have nothing to add, and besides Persephone is more on the ball than I am right now, except to say: next time you write such a well-balanced, comprehensive, insightful piece, can you please save it for a blog post? And send it to me? That will get maximum exposure, and this sort of writing is worth it.

      One more little point: I’m glad that you recognize the value of 12-step programs for real crisis relief. For some people at some stages of addiction, it can be a life-saver. But you go on to show that at many other stages it can do more harm than good, comprising not only an additional addiction but, in a sense, a final addiction — because the habits it endorses become so strongly cemented….in the parts of our minds that should be growing, not stagnating.

  14. Peter Sheath November 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Hi Everybody
    Now this is a fascinating blog! I have watched with interest as arguements have developed, points have been made and positions taken. I love how we can become so animated and often fixed on, “the way I did it is best”. As you will have seen from Marc’s earlier bogs, I do have an affinity to 12 step programmes, I have found that, on the whole, it has helped me to become a better person. But, and it is a BIG BUT, that’s me and is only part of my journey. I also have a very deep need to understand being human and how addiction is probably central to it.
    I don’t buy the whole disease thing, I certainly don’t like the idea, metaphor or not, of something waiting in a carpark, doing push ups and sneaking up on me at my weakest moment.
    There are lots of things purported by 12 step programmes as absolute truths that really should be firmly placed in the land of fantasy, myth and metaphor. But hey, isn’t that just the same as most of the cures, programmes, and treatments offered for most conditions? I work in drug treatment, mainly implementing and developing new services. Probably THE biggest obstacle to changing the culture is the inflexibility of the medical model ideology that seems to have permeated the whole system. Much of this philosophy is based on myths, untruths, “thats the way we’ve always done it”, and very spurious clinical governance. Everybody seems to have developed an “evidence base”, for what they do and use it to resist change, control people and prevent them from taking ANY kind of risk.
    My own philosophy? Recovery=diversity. I was at home over the weekend when my partners daughter came into the house with her little girl and her little girl’s friend. She said her dad was coming to pick her up and I didn’t really pay that much attention. When dad arrived, he was someone I had worked with in a professional capacity many years ago. Unfortunately the little girls mum hadn’t made it, she died from an OD several years ago. This guy went to a couple of 12 step meetings, decided it wasn’t for him, but has been in recovery for around 8years. He is a single parent, in full time employment, and is well balanced. He thanked me and said I had been an important part of his recovery.
    Again over the weekend, a guy I sponsor, as part of the 12 step programme, telephoned me as he does most weekends (his choice). He has been really struggling with his son for several months, trying to help him through some mental health issues he was experiencing. It has been a really painful process for him and his family and he has tried almost every avenue to get help. There were “no quick fixes” here, His son refused any kind of outside help and was constantly self harming and threatening suicide. In the phone call he told me that all he had was the unconditional love he had learned to be able to give by following the 12 step programme and, he says, receiving it from myself. Over the weekend his son had openned up to him and they had enjoyed a very long and very loving talk for the first time in ages.
    Would he have been able to learn these things without the 12 step programme? Would the other guy be in a better place if he had “stuck around” and followed a 12 step programme? Honest answer? I don’t know and I don’t really care. I am just very grateful to be in a time, place and emotional position to be able to help someone find the dignity they rightly deserve.

    • Marc November 12, 2012 at 11:19 am #

      Hi Peter. How delightful to hear from you. I don’t have a lot to add. I’ve been busy creating a THIRD blog, this one for scientists and professionals (supposedly)….and my first post,, sure enough, goes back to my big beef with the “disease model”.

      Not only do we agree on this for all kinds of reasons, but just running with your comment here, the DIVERSITY in pathways to recovery is such a common-sense antidote to the disease model itself. How could any medical disease lend itself to dozens of different — and I mean REALLY different — forms of treatment? Your anecdotes drive this home. But they also drive home the lesson I learned when I was with you in England: the people you have around you and the way you interact with them has got to be a very important variable in most people’s recovery.

      To quote a reader, Richard Henry (comment above): “it was not the A.A that helped me at the time but the people in it.”

      It may sound simplistic, but I finally think I get it. If SOME 12-step programs can bring together a group of people who create a foundation of care and support, one which works for MOST who attend, then maybe that’s the formula for 12-step success.

  15. Nik November 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    Peter S,
    Thanks for sharing those stories. And I think I have mentioned that I agree with you as to ‘evidence’ base. A clinic here in Ontario, its best known, boasts a medical-social model, 12 steppish, and has a bunch of evidence published that looks impressive till you start picking it over. [Link in earlier post] In my opinion, AA is not worse off than many many programs in this regard.

    And I’d point out that I’m only addressing ‘evidence’. the question of ‘works’ is independent: effects can surely exist w/o good scientifically gathered evidence.

    Keep posting!.


    • Marc November 13, 2012 at 7:30 am #

      Well, I wouldn’t say “what works” is independent from “evidence based”. You’ve got to have the former to get the latter. The problem is that most agencies, centres, clinics, and so forth don’t have the time, money, or expertise to do serious outcome research (RCTs = randomized controlled trials).

      So “testimonial” evidence, which can be pretty flawed, is often all we have to go on.

  16. Heather November 10, 2012 at 12:01 am #


    I have been a sober member of AA for 16 years and I say, Right On. To thine own self be true. I can see your perspective and in many ways can identify with it. Your recovery is yours. The cool thing about your story is that you actually DID your own trauma work –which is the sticking point for many addicts and the reason for much of the “stasis” you referred to. This isn’t about doing it right or being a good AA/NA. It is about getting well. Thank you for your honesty and being an excellent example of an addict seeking outside help beyond the 12 step structure. As the book says, “We know but a little.”


    • Marc November 13, 2012 at 7:26 am #

      Thanks for a great finishing touch to what has been a very engaging discussion!

    • Persephone November 17, 2012 at 10:40 am #

      Heather, thank you very much. You hit on the real key point here, getting well! I’m happy that your path worked for you, and stay well!

  17. Charlie November 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    Marc, I just read your first post, I’m intrigued by your idea that addiction is just an extreme form of learning. I would take that concept one step further, incorporating the idea of human resistance to change.

    Once we’ve learned something, it becomes easier and easier to do, and because it’s easier, we may do it with more frequency. For example, in the beginning I was not as experienced in my job, and it took a lot of studying and learning to become highly skilled. Today, my work is much easier because many of the functions are rote by now, and I get a kind of pleasure (dopamine?) sitting down to do my work if other things around me are chaotic. It’s the sameness of it that is pleasurable, even the difficult, problem-solving parts.

    So, with addiction, because the substance usually numbs deeper, more problematic feelings, the dopamine/pleasure reaction is much greater and faster. And then once it has set in, it’s like a snowball effect. Instead of taking things a normal pace, once that pleasure has been “learned,” the brain desperately wants that new pleasurable sameness to continue. It no longer wants to learn anything else new. I think with addictive substances and behaviors, the neural pathways get entrenched much more quickly and deeply than with other pleasurable activities and are thus much harder to become unentrenched from.

    It’s my view the key to overcoming addiction is to retrain the brain, to entrench new (or even old) neural pathways more deeply than they have been before, so they override the addictive ones. Once the new ones are entrenched, the brain will again find pleasure in the familiarity and sameness of the new pathways, just as it used to do with the addictive ones. But humans are resistant to change, and the deep neural pathways that addiction creates are the most difficult to override.

    Does this make sense at all? I have these hazy notions in my head, but without a background like yours, they’re difficult to put into words.

    • Marc November 25, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

      Hi Charlie. This makes a great deal of sense to me. In fact it more or less summarizes the story I tell people about the brain’s role in learning addiction and possible strategies for recovery.

      But I would not give “pleasure” so much credit as you do here. One of the amazing things about being human is that we can link a whole series of sub-goals together, each one leading to the next, with the final sub-goal leading to the pot of gold. Except that, with addiction, the pot of gold isn’t so golden. The feeling of the high is generally disappointing after a while, isn’t it? And yet the synaptic footprints of that series of learned actions….I think that is what’s at the heart of the matter.

      Yes, it’s the same series of actions that we “over-learn” on our jobs. And whether or not they give us pleasure, they sure make us feel that we’re getting somewhere. They give structure to our days, they move us TOWARD something, and that in itself is satisfying.

      I think addiction is much like that. Not only do we learn the steps along the way (e.g., planning, scoring, anticipating, more planning, preparing, doing it, hiding it) very well, so that the synaptic trail becomes deeply entrenched, but also we feel a lot of comfort just in the sense that we are doing something familiar and meaningful, something that has a shape to it, rather than floating aimlessly in our already-messed-up lives.

      Even if the shape of it is, objectively speaking, self-destructive.

  18. Fred November 20, 2012 at 1:34 am #

    I congratulate Persephone on her progress and insight. It’s obviously working for her. All I can offer in response to her story about 12 step programs is that it is not the whole truth because I have had a very different experience. I have been in 12 step for nearly 7 years and have never felt the program was one of stasis, or overly focused on the worst problems of my addiction, or that I had to do or be or think or say anything to be in the program. If someone in a meeting says “my addict is doing pushups in the parking lot”, I don’t hear someone who is “stuck”, I hear someone who believes that if they get too complacent, they may relapse. For some folks, that’s a helpful belief, and I respect that.

    The ONLY qualification for membership is a desire to stop our addictive behavior. It IS an abstinence based program. But other than that, I’ve found that I can take what I like and leave the rest and no one has ever judged me harshly, even as I haven’t done any aspect of the program perfectly. I simply seek out those who seem to have made some progress, and I pay the most attention to them. If someone else in the program is struggling (whether in my judgment or in their own), or says something in a meeting that I don’t find helpful, I try to be empathic and supportive by listening and sharing my experience if asked. One piece of program wisdom that I value is “identify in, compare out.” If I can identify with the humanity and the struggle of my fellows, even if I disagree with their outlook or mindset or actions, I can connect and perhaps be helpful. However, if I compare and judge, I’m out of connection and no longer able to really feel them, or my full self, and the opportunity to be helpful is lost.

    My interpretation of Persephone’s story is that she somehow got attached to the idea that 12-step= stuck. That’s it’s just a lifetime of re-living trauma and wallowing in the worst aspects of ourselves. I’d leave too, if that were my belief and experience. But it hasn’t been my experience. Am I blind? Am I brainwashed? I don’t think so. I’ve got nearly 7 years sobriety. I’ve repaired my marriage, started on a new career that is exciting and fulfilling, lost a ton of weight and gained a lot of friends. I don’t have cravings to act out in my addiction. I am definitely not stuck. I’ve still got lots of things I’m working on too – I don’t have it all figured out. I’m a horrible procrastinator. I’m a borderline hoarder. I tip from anger into rage sometimes, and I know it’s not helpful when I do. I’m still working on all of this, but with some sense of humor and humility, and definitely not alone thanks to the support I get in the rooms.

    Maybe Persephone just drew the short straw – ending up in meetings packed with losers. Maybe her counselors in treatment saw her strength and confused it with the dreaded “pride”, and decided to try to browbeat it out of her. The healthy part of her rejected all that, as well it should have. But what a shame. I wish she had met some of the folks who helped me along when I got started and who I know today. Maybe she’d have stayed. The program could definitely use some of her skepticism, and her sobriety, and her conviction. Luckily for me, I can get some of that from her in this blog, so to that I say “cheers!” and thanks to Marc, Persephone, and all the wise commenters above.

    In closing, I’d like to say that it’s my hope that we can all hold our beliefs and judgments about “the program” a bit loosely so that we can make ample room to support ALL paths to sobriety.

    • Marc November 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

      Fred: What a lovely, articulate, wise and empathic comment. I don’t have much to add. Your “axioms” for how to deal with the diversity in 12-step meetings (and otherwise) seem very astute. Especially about holding our judgements and beliefs “loosely” — that seems so important. So that we can change our minds: both in the moment, when encountering some group member who might seem to be brow-beating us or…who might just be feeling a bit desperate and not knowing how to deal except to displace it, and also in the long-run, when making up our minds about the ultimate value of this or that approach to recovery.

      Maybe Persephone did draw a short straw. The group I posted about a few posts ago certainly seemed more gentle than the experience she tells about. I don’t doubt that both ends of this continuum coexist. So, yes, let’s hold our beliefs “loosely”.

    • Persephone November 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

      Fred, thank you for the comment. I did, in many ways, draw the short straw, as you say. You did hit the proverbial nail when you assessed my treatment/counselors. My stubbornness and certainly my desire to analyze everything was seen as a detriment. I had just detoxed at a facility for a week that was so horribly abusive that they have now lost government funding, but that did lead me to be very, very closed off in the residential program I was transferred to. Well, I’d just been punished at another place for crying and any attempt to discuss trauma was met with chants of “poor me, poor me, pour me a drink!”, so I was rather determined to not open myself up to anything else of that sort. Their efforts to browbeat me didn’t bother me so very much, though, it was the efforts against others there that I was expected and asked to join in that upset me more than anything else.

      I’d like to make two points though, because I really enjoyed reading your comment, and hate to sound nit-picky. The thing is, I realized the stasis once I revisited my old home group, as well as engaging with discussions with others on all sides of the recovery spectrum. In other words, once I’d moved on from my own addiction. I might too have thought that I must remain vigilant had I remained in an environment surrounded by others with that attitude, I just didn’t have that experience. I completely respect that position as well, because just because I’m not cursed with cravings doesn’t mean that they aren’t a constant torment to many other people. Their vigilance serves them well, in that regard, whether in AA/NA or without.

      The last is simply a point of disagreement that is very fundamental to my own self and I don’t expect everyone else to share, nor should they. I have met people who are absolutely wonderful in AA and NA, and respect their views on their programs. However, there is nothing in the program itself that allows for my own viewpoint, namely that I do not accept that I should surrender my will to any power outside of myself in terms of my addiction. Everything in the steps themselves was tied inexorably to notions I had already personally rejected of constant atonement and belief in a higher power, of surrender. I had to do this myself, and once I did do it myself, I realized I’d had the power all along.

      That’s not everyone’s story, it’s just mine. I do know a large number of atheists in 12 step programs, just btw, who have no issue with this. I know people of faith who don’t like the steps on their own theological grounds. This isn’t a debate I want to enter into here, either, just something I felt worth mentioning, as it’s something that cannot be reconciled no matter what the quality of experience is with 12 step programs. I could’ve met you and a zillion other wonderful people and nothing would’ve changed the spiritual/religious aspect for me. I’m just a fighter, and had to fight my own fight. I just wish I’d not seen so many casualties along the way.

      Thanks again.

      • Marc December 13, 2012 at 6:07 am #

        Persephone, I just read this carefully, after letting it lie fallow for awhile. You express your concerns and perspectives VERY clearly, and I find myself agreeing with you at every step. The kind of sneering abuse you describe at that program…man, that is some nasty shit. But your final two points are also very well taken and they help clarify the big picture. Thanks.

        • Persephone December 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

          Thank you, Marc. Yes, it was very bad, but it was worse in other depts. there and led to a federal investigation (this involved deaths of patients in other programs than substance abuse), so it’s rather well documented (now, at the time it was the most recommended place you could ask about locally) as having been full of problems.

          The funny thing about the sneering and abuse, oddly, is that it was led by a patient mostly, then added to by employees. This patient also kept advocating a separate very long term hospital in a different region of the country. Once I started researching rehabs and their parent companies, I discovered that that hospital and the long term facility were owned by the same corporation. Everything about this was dirty, long before they lost funding and started being investigated.

          Sorry, I just figured I would add that caveat about this place. The big picture for me, well, I laid that out, and I thank everyone, including you, for listening.

  19. nik November 21, 2012 at 1:21 am #

    Hi Fred,

    F://My interpretation of Persephone’s story is that she somehow got attached to the idea that 12-step= stuck. That’s it’s just a lifetime of re-living trauma and wallowing in the worst aspects of ourselves. I’d leave too, if that were my belief and experience. But it hasn’t been my experience. Am I blind? Am I brainwashed? I don’t think so. I’ve got nearly 7 years sobriety. //

    You are not blind or brainwashed and neither is Persephone. She–as I read her– had a different experience than you.

    //Maybe Persephone just drew the short straw – ending up in meetings packed with losers.//

    Maybe your meetings were atypical in having those able to resist a possible tendency to ‘stuckness’, that Persephone mentions. OR, Her meetings, most likely, were (in my view) similar in composition to yours, but she had a different reaction to and experience of those people.

    I believe Marc commented that a large, locally varied, organization is going to be experienced differently by different people. It’s difficult to specify its reality, but apparently lots –not all–of people have found it of some use, esp. at the early or crisis stage. Further, a majority of people (entering a 12-step program) do NOT succeed, but to be fair, we don’t have the data to compare with other programs (where the same may hold). This is not unlike various non-surgical approaches (including ‘diets’) to weight loss; each has some success, but fails to produce lasting results, for the majority.

    Let us stop trying to disqualify or invalidate the many valuable posts of various insightful posters. Remember that it’s just as likely that you’re attached to pre-conceived ideas and filtered your experience as that the other person did.

    • Fred November 21, 2012 at 3:57 am #

      nik, I think you’re 99% correct in what you say above. The 1% where I quibble is where you seem to guess at my motives (“trying to disqualify or invalidate…”). I certainly did not mean to disqualify or invalidate any post or poster. I simply wanted to offer that I have not experienced feeling held back or stuck in 12-step. As you say above, Persephone had her experience and I had mine. Telling my story doesn’t invalidate hers or anyone else’s.

      I was sitting this thread out until Marc’s next post, which seems to endorse the thesis that 12-step is significantly about keeping people locked in PTSD. Maybe he’s just pushing that idea around without a lot of commitment to it, but I wanted to offer a confounding data point to say that 12-step is not always that, and that it can, for some, be a resource for long term personal growth even after the addictive crisis has passed.

      All that said, it probably would have been better for me to not speculate on the things that may have shaped Persephone’s experience. I can’t really know, and perhaps that speculation came off as invalidating or judgmental. My humble apologies for that. I really appreciate what she offered. I admire her insight and found it valuable. It has helped me to understand another of the possible “whys” that 12-step doesn’t work for some, and given me some positive ideas about what did work for her. These are useful lenses to have around. I’m always grateful for more insight and more tools for myself and those that I try to support. Thank you also for letting me know that something in my communication was ineffective.

      • Marc November 25, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

        Fred, I think it was find to take an educated guess at what Persephone was experiencing and why. I mean, we do do that when immersed in these rather complex dialogues. And I see your approach as very inclusive and validating.

        By the way, yes, my next post was an attempt to further extend and explore Persephone’s thesis. I didn’t mean it really as an endorsement: that this is the way it is in all 12-step treatment. Probably I wasn’t very careful about making that clear, and maybe I can contextualize my comments next time around.

        I just thought that the PTSD/stasis/anxiety-maintaining linkage was fascinating and insightful, and I sure do imagine that stoking people’s fears can be a double-edge sword. Yet, as you say, it can really be a helpful way to stay back from the edge of the cliff, and that’s got to be valuable for many.

        Next post, I want to make the point that all recovery is developmental. It has to be, because that’s how the brain finds new terrain.

    • Marc November 25, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

      Yes, but I dont’ think that Fred is trying to disqualify or invalidate….if that’s what you were suggesting, Nik. But what you also say seems true: there is so much variability in the kinds of 12-step groups that are operating, and so much diversity in what people bring to these groups, and in the ways they respond to what they hear, see, and feel there….that we have a hugely complex equation. Two or three variables, each taking on many possible values, all interacting. It would take an expert in calculus to figure out the possible permutations! I think this is your main point, and I agree.

  20. Kevin Cody December 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    Persephone, have written more elsewhere, please?

    • Persephone December 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      Kevin, my name here links to the very small blog I have for this subject. I’ve deleted quite a bit of the more personal stuff, but will be adding more along these lines. You’re more than welcome to peruse the small stash left up at the moment!

  21. Dane Picker February 7, 2014 at 2:19 am #

    Hey Persephone,
    I am a guy (28) in recovery myself and was in AA for almost 4 years. I failed at any long term sobriety and would relapse over and over again. I went through the steps and followed ALL of their suggestions and still ended up using over and over again. I could not grasp the God concept, but I still gave it my all (prayer, meditation, amends, 4th step, etc.). I tried to take what I wanted and leave the rest…but that is just not okay with people in AA…I was considered “dry” if I didn’t have a God or didn’t take certain “suggestions”. They would say these are suggestions just like it is suggested to pack a parachute when you jump out of a plane- sounds like bullying to me. I was pitied when I said I didn’t believe in God….people actually felt bad for me- how insulting. I recently just left AA about a month ago and have 32 days clean on my own. All of my so called “friends” in AA have not reached out at all to see where their “buddy” has gone. I have tried to reconnect with people in AA but it is just so awkward talking to them. I feel their eyes judging me like I’m going to explode at any moment and they are just waiting for me to come crawling back- it is no longer an equal relationship. So the few that have reached out to me unfortunately treat me different now and I don’t accept that. So Im left with not a single friend, feeling totally alone and hanging on for dear life hoping to God (pun intended) I will not prove them all right. I exercise, eat right, dance, sculpt, go to school and work part time. Im doing my best to stay active mentally and physically. Just wanted to reach out because you sound grounded and its nice to see it in someone who left AA/NA as I have and gives me hope.

    • Adam Sledd February 15, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

      Hang in there buddy, you are not alone.

      • Dane Picker February 15, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

        Thank you. Congratz on your long term sobriety. Keep up the good work dude.

  22. Adam Sledd February 15, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

    I love finding thoughts like these; this is very similar to my experience as a thinking person in NA. From the beginning it has set off little alarms in my head. And don’t get me started on AA…but the most striking thing to me is that there are quotes from the literature, and most notably from Bill Wilson himself, that agree with this line of thinking. There is one in particular that I cannot reference right now that says almost exactly what the writer says above; that we must keep learning and developing, or something like that. I think my next blog entry will be about the huge disparity between what appears in the literature and quotes from the founders, and what is practiced in the rooms. That is one reason that the fellowships cannot and must not be relied upon as addiction treatment; the practitioners are non-professional, at best.

    • Marc May 22, 2014 at 7:50 am #

      People don’t usually read comments from posts that are months old, so keep up with us! But the debate about AA just keeps on churning, evolving, I hope. I used to be very critical of it. Now I find that the diversity you speak of cuts both ways. There’s a lot of nasty shit going down under the AA banner, but there’s a lot of good things too. People have found groups, approaches, orientations that fit them — if they’re lucky. Which is reason enough not to vilify the whole business.

  23. Guy May 19, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    I don’t usually post on these kinds of forums, but this is a really interesting exchange.
    For me, 12 step recovery has not kept me in stasis. I spent two years as what I think of as a ‘dry drunk’ – and I stress everything I say here is based on my personal experience, I can’t speak for anyone else – and they broke me. I did every kind of therapy under the sun, even studied a one year part time course in psychotherapy and psychoanalytic theory, and at the end of it I was having panic attacks and rage attacks that destroyed a lot in my life that was still standing (just about) after my using.
    When I went into AA, after 2 years of mistrusting it, I followed the suggestions but took on board the old adage about ‘stick with the winners.’ if someone didn’t have a recovery I wanted, I didn’t spend time with them, though I did learn a little about tolerance along the way. I have found the 12 steps to be a very powerful tool for my personal growth, as well as keeping me alive. When Bill W and Dr Bob were framing the steps, they went through different drafts. If fewer alcoholics went back out and died, they kept it in. It’s based on a very brutal kind of empiricism and pragmatism, and I approach it in the same spirit.
    I’ve done all kinds of other work over the years, anything I think will be helpful – trauma work especially – but none has been as powerful as the steps. I’ve now worked them around sex and love, money and also food, as my addiction finds new areas to spread into. Bill W’s suggestion – and everything in the fellowships is a suggestion, none of it an order or even advice – was to find someone who has what you want and do the steps with them. once you have what they want, find someone who has something else you want, and do the steps with them… There’s no big drama about it anymore – something becomes an issue for me in terms of addictive behaviour and thoughts, I find a sponsor and work the steps. one or two meetings a week and an hour or two of writing, its not a huge sacrifice. and its free… I am constantly humbled by the willingness of people in the rooms to give me their time and wisdom for free, while being aware that they do it – as I do – for selfish reasons, to keep their denial broken open.
    One final thought, as I am perhaps sounding like someone who does little else but sit in church basements at meetings. One of the things that kept me out of recovery was the phrase ‘do you want what we have?’ In my early days, I would sit there and think: fuck no, I don’t want to be talking about my drinking in two decades time.
    Then I realised that the reason why old-timers, as I am now, go to meetings a few times a week and sponsor other addicts is this: it is precisely so the rest of the time I do not have to think about alcohol or my other addictive substances and behaviours AT ALL. The rest of the time, in the life I have rebuilt thanks to my recovery, it just doesn’t feature. Before the steps, I was still thinking about it all the time – just about NOT doing it, rather than doing it.
    So why am I writing this? I am taking some time to tackle food issues and their connection to trauma, and this came up on a google search.)
    and, having spent two years in a broken state, not using but not in recovery, and reading websites like this – and again, I stress this was my experience, and I am not implying that is the case with anyone else who posts here – I am as wary of literature that is entirely against 12 steps as I am of people who consider that 12 step is the only ‘right’ way to do it.
    so to anyone who is worrying about 12 steps, the most helpful thing I heard in early recovery was this: get a sponsor (someone who has what you want etc), write a step 1, and then share it. if you feel better, do step 2. if you don’t, try something else and the best of luck to you. that’s how I approached it.
    PS I wondered whether the mildly confrontational tone of the above exchanges may have been set by the intro – ‘it’s no longer be nice to 12 steps week.’ personally speaking, I have no interest at all in whether people like the fellowships or not. they work for me, and the way I work it is to help others when I can because it stops me being as self-obsessed as only an addict can be. one of the greatest gifts of my recovery is that I no longer mind what people think of me. I might care a little, perhaps, because i’m only human. but I really don’t mind, that’s a freedom I personally have not found in any kind of therapy.

    • Marc May 22, 2014 at 7:46 am #

      Hello Guy. Just so you know, we spent a few posts and many comments on perspectives on the 12-step approach. Got a whole spectrum of opinions, as you also suggest. But we deal with a lot of other issues, and this one is now on the back burner (I hope). Also, with older posts, very few people will ever read your comment. Comments on recent posts will get much more attention. Which is too bad, because I think your perspective is valuable.

      I did read it (all comments register on my email). And I think it’s a great way to go. I used to be pretty anti-AA. Now I am much more agnostic, but in particular I recognize that it is not an approach — it’s a whole cluster of approaches tied together by a few foundational tenets.

      The personalized, individualized interpretation you recommend seems to be winning out these days. Did you see the recent exchange published by the HAMS people? And I’ve just gotten in touch with a decidedly atheistic 12-step variant which seems to follow thoughts by a guy named Joe Chisholm (Beyond Belief is his book). Anyway, so much going on. It’s almost like trying to interpret/reinterpret the bible (not my scene) in that there are perhaps hundreds of ways to make sense of an old text that, itself, is what it is because it comes from a different period and is no longer being revised by the original authors.


  24. Eric A Bray December 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    Great article. I left A.A. because I found that meetings were simply taking me back to a point that I had left in my life and the end result was stagnation. After attending some of the same meetings for about 2 years I noticed most of the people were not working or going to school or pursuing any meaningful long term goals other than attending meetings on a daily basis. There was a very disempowering aspect to these meetings and a lot of God talk but not much action. Folks would sit around and tell war stories about their use, slurp endless cups of coffee and eat junk food and smoke like chimneys and call that sobriety. It became very depressing to be around and I would leave the meetings feeling deflated and sad and not know why. I know that not all meetings are like this but it was my experience and I wouldn’t recommend a 12 step meeting to a friend or family member, it’s just not a healthy culture in my experience.

    • Marc December 8, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

      I’ve heard this kind of reaction many times, Eric, but I now believe that it’s part of a larger picture. There’s quite a lot of diversity from group to group — some are as you describe while others are more dynamic and flexible. I’m trying to make sense of the double-edged sword of AA in my upcoming book. There must be a reason why both the supporters and detractors of AA are so passionate.

    • Nick M December 22, 2014 at 10:33 am #

      Hear! Hear!

  25. Sally August 22, 2016 at 7:44 pm #

    this interests me as in crisis I found twelve steps and support, on my own going deeper into other trauma healing and feeling leading to liberation and empowerment. I returned to find the same people speaking the same stuff, like they were addicted to 12 steps and what they say rather than the change of healing. not to say I have healed thats a life journey yet I saw people are stuck and perhaps in some way feed off what is feeding their needs, addicted to the process.. rather than truly commiting to empowerment and change. I feel any addiction is avoidance of true self and people who avoid themselves stick together wether through substsnce abuse or just grouping.. the answer to me has been to truly feel through my feelings and give myself what I need..empowerment through giving myself and my feelings what they need.. actually to do it. I found it helpful for six weeks to be in meetings as it gives a space to begin to have awareness yet very good to move on quite quickly !!

  26. Katie August 28, 2016 at 11:50 pm #

    As a woman who has been in and out of the rooms and now has 5 years clean I have read all of these comments and have enjoyed the discussion. My two cents are different people need different things. I needed trauma therapy and to step away from 12 step meetings and to focus on healthy living. I also have attended Smart Recovery meetings that teach tools and does not ask for life long attendance and Lifering Secular Recovery meetings that use regular speech. I wish for all who need relief to get what they are searching for and appreciate the discussion.

  27. René Cross October 2, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    Well done on turning your life around. I’ve just returned from an AA meeting tonight in Harare Zimbabwe.
    Your responses are a mixed bag. Some for and some against.
    Yeah I’m over 13 years abstinent. I attend meetings and also work as a therapist.
    I too have had reservations about the meetings or rather people in them.
    However at 43 years old after 21 years on the needle, and 11 years prior to injecting, taking drugs by another route. I found myself broken.
    I discovered A blueprint, a formula if you like and have come from being a thieving criminal, homeless dog end smoking junkie to someond not only employable but dependable.
    I know that there are other ways of recovering and/or of being recovered, clean, straight whatever. But personally I currently favour 12 step.
    That said any addict who’s turned a corner and survived their addiction by any means is something to admire and applaud.
    By the way…….I support therapy as it has helped me.
    Glad you wrote about doing things differently. The steps aren’t for everyone.

  28. JR May 31, 2018 at 11:57 pm #

    I am grateful for this piece/reflection on the recovery process. I have just completed a yoga teacher training in Ubud, Bali and have pursued various healing and spiritual experiences and guidance (e.g. sound healing, Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic, extra meditative opportunities, chakras, and more). I have come to understand the low vibrational frequency of staying stuck through some 12 step groups – which reminded me of many people in my group – I see their inner beauty and light, however they are operating at unhealthy low level emotions – sending low frequencies out. We attract others of a low frequency state or bring others down sometimes when stuck like this – see David Hawkins’ map of emotional frequency consciousness.
    This post is inspirational because yoga is my recovery process now after being clean for 4 years. It’s about my emotional opening and transformation now. I’m not the shell of a human I was when acting out for most of my life. I trust my inner guidance. I am powerful and connected with the oneness of the universal energy.
    I intend to stay connected with my recovery fellowship, however my focus is on pursuing high frequency environments and connection. High vibes for all!
    A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle is a good starting place to understand ego and how we manifest our essence in this world.
    🙏🏼 Much gratitude for this share. Love yourself.

  29. Don C June 16, 2018 at 1:46 pm #

    I am so grateful and relieved to find articles like this. I became involved in 12 step 20 years ago. I thought it was the only way out from my addictive behavior since I did not seem to be able to do it on my own. Finding a healthier way to deal with my problem at the time may have saved me 20 years of misery and a stifled life in repeated relapse, believing that I had an incurable, progressive illness that does not exist. I found relief in CBT based treatment, but at times continue to be haunted by what I call “powerless thinking brainwashing.” I used to call going to bed the “chamber of horrors”. The 20 Questions replayed over and over in my head, yes, yes, yes. Sorry for starting to get emotional.
    I do understand that we all must find what is right for us, whatever works and provides a better life. I know also that people are successful combining 12 step with other programs that to me are direct opposites and diametrically opposed.
    I try not to be judgemental and I am learning. I am grateful to be where I am now and learning to live a more positive life. I am relieved that I am not alone in my negativity about powerlessness.

  30. Ruth B August 13, 2018 at 4:32 pm #

    I’m going to repost a reply that I put above as a comment. I was so vulnerable when I came to AA due to trauma that the term “take what you want and leave the rest” did not work for me. I simply believed everything that was said because I so wanted my life to change. People made it out to me that AA would help me with the trauma I had been through when in actuality I went from being a top performing graduate student when I first got to AA to being completely disabled and unable to work in about 8 years. This idea that AA can help you with all of your problems simply kept me from really working on my trauma to the point of total and complete breakdown. I also had an abusive sponsor and met men in AA who I ended up in domestic violence with. There was sexual abuse involved and my cats were also severely abused. Today, after recovering from my trauma for over three years, I do not believe that anyone as vulnerable as I was should be involved with a 12 step program. I got coerced and manipulated by so many people so easily and believed the promises to the extent that I was basically unaware of the reality around me. I lost who I was, all emotion, and all sense of truth. I have talked to at least a hundred trauma survivors who have had the same experiences in 12 step programs and for those who had as severe of trauma as me, their stories follow mine. I am aware that there are thousands, if not more, who are in the same boat as me when it comes to this reaction to 12 step methodology and ideology. The truth is too that there are predators in AA who are easily able to spot those who are like me. There are many ways outside of 12 step programs that will help a person stay sober, work through trauma, recovering from growing up in an alcoholic family, or do anything else that 12 step programs help with or claim to help with. I think that rehab programs, counselors, and the recovery community need to recognize that 12 step programs can be very harmful to some and that other methods of staying sober should be reviewed. Also, I got pulled into AA in a way that I was unable to think clearly about what the best options for me were in terms of recovery or even dealing with life. I believe now that if the rehab center would have sent me to counseling first for a significant amount of time so that I could become stronger in myself and think more independently before I even tried AA that my life would be much different than it is today. And in terms of my drinking or life story that I developed in early recovery: today it really is gone, and I recognize that no story of my life can really touch upon the magnitude of life itself or provide answers to all of the things that have occurred in my life or provide consistent answers to why. I can contemplate why and have some theories, but life, humanity, and even differing types of spirituality are simply too big for me to go to a 12 step program and accurately recount my drinking days. In fact, I really don’t have a consistent timeline or story from that time anyways because I no longer tell myself the same static story like I did for the first 9 1/2 years that I drank. I don’t drink today simply out of fear as to what happened then or even because my life is better today than it was, because it is not. Drinking was just another thing in my life that caused me problems just as so many things in life can cause us pain, or even prove to be life threatening. I don’t see drinking as anything worse than many of the obstacles I have overcome and in actuality is not as big of a deal as many other things in my life. I don’t take the idea that I am an alcoholic or don’t drink as prime importance in my life because many things have made me who I am today. I am much happier now that I am no longer in that state of mind where I am repeating what has happened in my life, whether it be in drinking or sobriety, and can just live life today in a way that I never was able to. The possibilities in life are endless, even for me despite my disabilities. I look back at life as I learn more about it due to things like recovered memories, skills, and having new realizations due to trauma work which help me to have a different perspective on not just my life but on others around me as well. I have compassion and empathy today that I didn’t really start to develop until I ventured off on my own and am able to communicate like everyone else. I rely on myself first and foremost and rely on others in a different way than I ever did. I had to break from 12 step ideology to get where I am at though, and the wholeness and experiences I had to get where I’m at would take a long time for me to describe, especially now that I don’t have concrete stories and timelines as to my life. I now live in a more abstract way and that works for me. To those of you who find life within 12 step programs, that is all the better for you. For those who need a different path to find life and themselves, that’s okay too. Life is more complex than any of this.

  31. Ruth B August 13, 2018 at 4:34 pm #

    Oops, I meant in my comment the story I told myself for the first 9 1/2 years that I was sober regarding my drinking.

  32. Susan Worts August 16, 2018 at 3:44 pm #

    This revolutionary way of looking at addiction is so important, it needs to be understood at every level of the public school curriculum as our children are currently pampered and protected to the point that anxiety and depression are skyrocketing by the time kids are in high school. When are they encouraged to problem solve and think independently, to send themselves affirmative messages when social media is overtaking their common sense and holding up a dissatisfied mirror? Thank heaven for people like Dr. Lewis who understand the thought process that leads to addiction and the thought process that can lead you out.

  33. Melissa February 7, 2019 at 10:15 pm #

    “That people must learn, and that they must develop. That sometimes true acceptance is the ability to finally move on and leave behind the stasis caused by endlessly repeating stories of the lowest lows.”

    ..that says it all right there. What a great article from a free thinker who is in alignment with their higher self. Thank you for sharing.

  34. Lisa A January 25, 2020 at 3:30 pm #

    Fantastic. After spending 23 years in AA, since age 24, I felt frozen in time. It felt wrong. The behavior I saw in some people in AA, people who had years of sobriety and acted self righteous and were admired by many, was disturbing. After questioning my place there for 2 years (after being there21 years) but going anyway, I reached a point where AA looked more like any another addiction…. commuting oneself over and over again, to something, without really thinking if it’s actually good for you or bad. For me, it was a hinderance. This is only my story. I then spent 2 months deprogramming from AA. I read The Sober Truth and was floored. I read more and more and found that I had to break free. It was time. I had merely abused alcohol after a break up in my early 20’s. I no longer believed in the disease model or allergy theory. I read The Freedom Model. I now make my own choices for my life, without the glass ceiling of AA. And i am not an alcoholic. Good luck to everyone on their own life journey. Thank God we each have our own path in life.

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